Entry 864: When General Tso Was Just a Private

I really only remember one of my grandparents.

My father’s parents were both dead by the time I was born. My mother’s mother died of an aneurism when I was around eight. All I recall about her was her addiction to a confection called Canada Mints. She would suck on one all the time until it looked like she was foaming at the mouth.

My maternal grandfather is who I remember, mostly with fondness, although not in a lot of detail. What comes to mind are vignettes–like an episodic biographical movie: him and me playing Skee-ball at Coney Island; him and me having a catch in a vacant lot near his apartment; him and me watching wrestling on his black and white TV; him and me peering out his living room window at the courtyard in front of his building while he commented on all the different people coming and going; him drinking lots of castor oil.

When I was eight, my parents and I moved from Brooklyn to Howard Beach, Queens, which my father quaintly thought was the suburbs. Every couple of weeks we’d return to Brooklyn to visit my grandfather who lived in the Bay Ridge section, somewhere near the new Verrazzano Bridge (I vaguely remember seeing it being built).

On these trips, we’d usually go bowling, which my grandfather was really good at (he participated in leagues until he was well into his 60’s), and then we’d go to a local Chinese restaurant, which is really what I want to talk about today.

That Chinese restaurant we’d go to was the standard issue of the time. It even had the “one from column A, one from column B” kind of menu that comedians would make fun of, often while bucking out their teeth and turning their r’s into l’s (and vice versa). There was chow mein and chop suey. Shrimp in lobster sauce. Egg foo young.

When was the last time you ordered any of those?

The adults would smother their fried rice with all this goopy stuff while I had a burger and fries from the “American dishes” section of the menu. No chopsticks were used or offered. For dessert there was ice cream, into which we would dip our fortune cookies once we had broken them open, because that was really the only way you could manage to ingest fortune cookies, a food item meant mostly for reading rather than eating. And, in those days, you didn’t waste any kind of food because there were starving children somewhere.

Many years later I would learn that this was supposedly Cantonese Chinese food, although back then my grandfather just called it (and I apologize for this blatantly racist historical reference) “chinks.” It wasn’t until Szechuan came along, in the 1970’s, that it was necessary to distinguish between styles of Chinese cooking. Now there are only a few Cantonese places left in New York, most of them to be found in basement locations in Chinatown. That’s somewhat ironic, since some of this food is about as Asian as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It was called Cantonese because it was mostly invented by people who came from the Canton region of China in the 1800s to work on the transcontinental railroad or in gold mines. In fact, many of the dishes were originally designed to be cookable in work camps along the rails, basically throwing some sort of protein in with whatever vegetables they had laying around and stir-frying it all together. It was an entirely American concoction, and they called it ”tsa sui” which, in Mandarin, means “a bunch of chopped up stuff.” (Chow mein, on the other hand, which includes noodles, is at least based on a real Chinese dish, “ch’ao mien.”)

Chinese restaurants began appearing in the 1850s, but they were all located in Chinatowns, primarily in San Francisco. An early Yelp review of one mentioned that it served “curries, hashes, fricassees, genuine English dishes, and tasty potato concoctions.”

Your guess is as good as mine as to what a “genuine English dish” was. Whatever it was, Chinese chefs seemed to be good at it, as many were hired as cooks by wealthy American families like the Cartwrights.*

It wasn’t until after World War II that Chinese restaurants proliferated throughout the country. But they were still based on Cantonese cooking, further watered down to appeal to the tastes of Eisenhower era Americans.

It’s amazing to think that we once had an appetite for greasy, bland “ethnic” cuisine like chop suey. (Suffice it to say there were no little pepper symbols next to items on the menu of my grandfather‘s Chinese place.) And remember, this was New York. You can imagine what ethnic restaurants were like once you left the big, melting pot cities. I’ll give you an idea: my grandfather’s other child, my Uncle Fred, lived in Virginia for awhile in the early 60’s and used to complain that the Chinese restaurants down there served their chop suey with mashed potatoes instead of rice. (At least it wasn’t grits.)

Egg foo young and moo goo gai pan were considered to be so exotic that Chinese restaurants felt the need to have an “American dishes” section for those with less sophisticated tastes. And I doubt you’d find many modern Asian restaurants with a sandwich section. Meanwhile, if we wanted Chinese food at home, my mother would open a can of Chun King (although I preferred Italian food–Chef Boyardee).

My granddaughter, on the other hand, at 11 months old, has already experienced fairly authentic Indian food, Persian food and various types of Asian food. One of her favorites, though, is something we did have when I was a kid, although it was still relatively new for most Americans, having become popular after the war.

I speak, of course, of pizza.

See you soon.

*While it is true that rich frontier Americans hired Chinese chefs, this a specific reference to an old TV show called Bonanza, in which the Cartwright family had a cook named Hop Sing. If you knew that without reading this footnote, congratulations–you’re as old as I am.
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