Annual observance celebrates Chinese food: The history of America’s most popular food is shared with humor

Jennifer 8. Lee, a former New York Times reporter who researched the history of Chinese food, shares her findings with the audience at Club Meade. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

In 2005, 110 people were winners of a Powerball lottery. Each of the winners claimed they selected their winning numbers from a fortune cookie.

That’s what Jennifer 8. Lee, a former reporter for The New York Times, discovered when she began researching the history of Chinese food for her book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” which was published in 2008.

Lee shared some of her discoveries about Chinese food and its popularity in the U.S. during her guest speech for Fort Meade’s annual observance of Asian-American and Pacific-Islander Heritage Month on May 31.

The 90-minute event, which was hosted by the U.S. Army Field Band and the Fort Meade Equal Opportunity Office, was held at Club Meade.

“I was impressed,” said Gemma Millas, an ultrasound technician in the Radiology Department at Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center, of the presentation. “It was a good story. I want to look for her book.”

The theme for this year’s national observance is “Unite Our Voices By Speaking Together.”

Sgt. 1st Class Michelle Spinazzola of the Field Band was the emcee.

The event included traditional Hawaiian music performed by Doug Kealoha, a ukulele player and vocalist; two displays of Asian-American and Pacific-Islander artifacts; and a Chinese lunch catered by Club Meade and My Lucky Fortune in Baltimore.

Sgt. 1st Class Samuel Chung of the Field Band performed the national anthem. Chaplain (Maj.) James P. Covey of Fort Meade’s Family Life Ministry gave the invocation.

Master Sgt. Scott Vincent of the U.S. Army Field Band joins other audience members in sampling catered Asian food during Fort Meade’s annual Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month observance on May 31 at Club Meade. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

In her welcome, Spinazzola said the observance “encourages the various Asian-American and Pacific-Islanders to join together to overcome misconceptions and stereotypes about the vibrant Asian-American and Pacific-Islander community.”

American As Apple Pie

In her nearly 40-minute presentation, Lee described how Chinese food has become “the most pervasive food on the planet.”

According to Lee, there are more than 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. — more than McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Wendy’s combined.

Chinese food is served on all seven continents, she said, even Antarctica.

“NASA served sweet and sour pork on the shuttle mission,” Lee said. “And the Cuban missile crisis was resolved at a Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C.”

Lee is the co-founder and CEO of Plympton, a San-Francisco-based literary studio that supports digital publishing, and stars in the documentary “The Search for General Tso.”

She said she became fascinated with the popularity and history of Chinese food when she learned that a Powerball player got the winning number from a fortune cookie.

Lee decided to search for all the winners who used those same numbers.

“I traveled around the country looking for the winners and went to find where their fortune cookies came from,” she said.

When Lee interviewed the winners, they all described how they had eaten Chinese food for either lunch or dinner, with family members or co-workers.

“If our benchmark for being an American is eating apple pie, you should ask yourself when was the last time you ate a piece of apple pie and when was the last time you ate Chinese food,” Lee said.

Lee, who said her favorite Chinese food dish is General Tso’s chicken, presented a detailed history of Chinese food in America, along with a description of the discrimination faced by Chinese- and Japanese-Americans.

She said that when the Chinese first arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1880s, Americans were not eating Chinese food. However, the prevailing thought among Americans was that the Chinese ate cats, dogs and rats.

Lee said she found a New York Times article published in 1883 that set out to answer the question of whether this stereotype was true. Lee said that the reporter went to several Chinese eateries in New York and found no evidence of cat, dog or rat carcasses.

Yet, Lee said that advertisements for rat poison at that time featured Chinese-Americans eating the rodents.

Early on, she said, food was used as a way to differentiate “us” from “them.”

The Chinese immigrated to the U.S. to flee war, flood and famine, many arriving in San Francisco to earn a living. The San Francisco gold rush necessitated jobs in mining, factories and on the railroads.

But Lee said there was fierce competition for the jobs with white Americans, and the Chinese experienced a backlash through fights, shootings and lynchings.

As a result, Lee said Chinese-Americans were pushed to become entrepreneurs in laundries and restaurants — work that women were most likely to do.

“Women’s work was less threatening to the American man,” she said.

By 1900, chop suey had become a popular Chinese food in the U.S. Lee said The New York Times reported that New York City had “gone chop suey.” Yet the average person in China knew nothing about the dish.

Lee said “chop suey” means “odds and ends” in Chinese, and that’s what the meal actually is — a blend of the familiar with the exotic.

The dish is a combination of beef, chicken or pork with Chinese vegetables that “have no real taste,” Lee said, such as water chestnut, snow peas and bean sprouts.

A subsequent article in 1906 reported that a man named Lem Seng claimed to be the creator of chop suey —not in China, but in the U.S.

Not The Original

The origins of General Tso’s chicken are also American. Lee traveled to China and met the fifth generational descendants of General Tso, who is known to his countrymen as a military hero.

Lee said the general’s descendants knew nothing of the popular U.S. dish.

“They were so confused,” Lee said. “They asked, ‘Is this Chinese food? It doesn’t look like Chinese food.’ ”

Another New York Times article traced the origins of General Tso’s chicken to Chef Peng of Taiwan, who created the popular dish in the 1970s. Lee traveled to Taiwan to meet Peng and showed him the American version of the dish.

Lee said Peng asked, “What’s that?”

Peng, who owns a restaurant in Taiwan where the dish is prepared, serves a General Tso’s chicken that is neither fried nor sweet and does not include broccoli.

In fact, Lee said. when Peng saw the American version of his dish, he replied “This is nonsense.”

“It was not what he expected or created, but it’s very popular in the U.S.,” Lee said.

Fortune cookies are also unknown in China. Lee showed a brief film clip of people in China eating fortune cookies for the first time. The cookie seemed strange.

One Chinese man in the clip asked, “Why do Americans put paper in their cookies?”

Lee said a woman in China sells fortune cookies as a novelty item.

Lee also discovered that Japanese-Americans began producing fortune cookies in the late 1880s.

Chinese-Americans began making fortune cookies in the U.S. after the executive order that interned Japanese-Americans in 1942.

“The Japanese invented fortune cookies, the Chinese popularized them, but Americans eat them,” Lee said.

Lee said that like General Tso’s chicken, she is both exotic in her appearance but there is no doubt “I am an American.”

“I am a version of General Tso’s chicken,” she said.

After the presentation, Garrison Commander Col. Tom Rickard presented Lee with a plaque of appreciation.

“Thank you for educating and entertaining us, and making us hungry,” Rickard said. “It has helped us to understand a little more about our past and our nation’s past.

“It is a great way of weaving history together.”

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