Mendelson’s insightful history of Chinese cuisine, restaurants, cookbooks, and immigrant experience in the US is, in these times, a topical look at the ways in which cultural interactions have been shaped by fears, ambitions, miscommunications, and the power of food to cross (some) boundaries.
An independent food scholar and the winner of the Sophie Coe Prize in food history, Mendelson tells a story that begins with the details of life in China that were transferred to and refracted in the New World. From Gold Rush-era California, through the odious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the establishment of the People’s Republic, and to the current day, she addresses issues such as the gulfs between Chinese and European-centric understandings of food and family; how the creation of a particularly American-Chinese cuisine was wholly in keeping with the Cantonese spirit of seung bahnfat, or problem solving; the effect of later eras of immigration; and the best or most notable efforts to create Chinese cookbooks that educated interested Americans.
Anyone who fears that the US will somehow fail to successfully integrate people from a culture which appears radically different from its own will find clear evidence here that such integration is possible, even when blockheaded efforts to curtail it draw out the process. Impressively researched, the book is highly readable, free of scholarly jargon, and more than eye-opening for anyone who cares about American food history.