Thanksgiving is awesome. What's even better is recovering from the food coma and feeling hungry again. The gap between the two is about 24 hours for the Sen family. First we cook and nibble, then we sip and nibble, then we eat and sip. Lastly, we inhale various pies and ice-creams which leads to said food coma and passing out on sofas, chairs, beds, and even bar stools. On Friday, we wake up swearing off food. Forever. We plan on a cleanse with just water to flush out every bit of savory and sweet delicacy in which we over-indulged. That lasts until the evening and then we clamor for food. Oye!
True to that script, last Friday night the boys decided it was time for Chinese take-out because Chicago, it seems, does not have good Chinese take-out. Sounded suspicious from the gitgo but adult-kids with faster metabolism inevitably overrun slow-poke parents. The village center near our home has a terrific Chinese restaurant, which is our go-to place when we need a fix.
As we drove to pick up the food, Neil asked how many Chinese restaurants there are in the US. I guessed tens of thousands. Which led us to wonder where that estimate stands relative to the number of McDonalds, Taco Bell and other fast food chains. Google had all the answers we needed.
There are 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the US. That number is more than McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Pizza Hut, and KFC combined.
Combined! Let that soak in for a bit.
Nah, you say? Take a sampling of a five mile radius from where you live and count the Chinese restaurants. And you'll agree. We have at least six near us, if not more. Definitely more that the number of fast food joints.
Naturally, our interest was piqued: how did this come about?
The Chinese came to the US during the gold rush in the late 20th century. In 1849 there were only 54 Chinese men in California. By 1876 there were 151,000 in the country, 116,000 in California alone. During this time, the Taipeng rebellion in southeast China had left poverty, joblessness, and starvation in its wake. The Chinese shipping industry made most of this downturn and the uptick in California. They advertised the gold rush in California via pamphlets and placards and hailed it as the panacea for the men of this region. China's proximity to California fueled this fire and Chinese immigration mushroomed quickly. The Chinese had tremendous work ethic and at first they were welcomed for their willingness to work for lower wages and longer hours. As long as surface gold was abundant, all races partook of the spoils in peace. But as the pioneers started moving west and the surface gold was depleted, some of the new arrivals turned their wrath on the immigrants and by 1850 the anti-Chinese sentiment started to take a hold as a political asset. The miners migrating westward used the Chinese presence as a source of anger for their own joblessness and economic plight.
After heated political machinations, in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring Chinese laborers from immigrating to the US or seeking citizenship.
There was a loophole though. The Chinese could enter the country on what was called a "merchant status" - they could start businesses, travel, and bring back employees from China. And what better entrepreneurial business than gastronomy! The number of Chinese restaurants doubled between 1910 and 20 and then again between 1920 and 30. Up until the 1960s, the Chinese food in the US was mainly of Cantonese origin. When immigration rules were relaxed, people from Hong Kong and Taiwan started to arrive on our shores, bringing their unique recipes with them. The Chinese altered their cuisine to suit the American palette and to adjust for the lack of native ingredients. As such, vegetables went from the central component of a dish to the side, American broccoli took center stage, leafy greens were substituted with carrots and green beans, MSG enhanced flavor, and Chop Suey emerged as the emperor among the new world dishes.
The Chinese continue to satisfy us with Hunan Chicken, Moo-shoo Pork, and Combination Lo Mein decades after the xenophobia that swept over them. Now, when we swing by to pick up Chinese take-out, we will remember the roots of the food and appreciate what immigrants go through to survive, assimilate and delight us.
Xièxiè. Thank you!