America’s First Culinary Revolution, or How a Girl from Gopher Prairie Came to Dine on Eggs Fooyung
ECONOMIC EVOLUTION AND REVOLUTIONS IN HISTORICAL TIME, pp. 419-445, Paul Rhode, Joshua Rosenbloom, David Weiman, eds., Stanford University Press, 2011
33 Pages Posted: 10 Apr 2011
Date Written: February 1, 2011
According to culinary scholars, American food retained a strongly British character through most of its history. Chinese food was the exception. Beginning in the early-twentieth century, Chinese restaurants began appearing outside of Chinatowns and the cuisine entered the cultural mainstream. This paper is an effort to explain why only the Chinese were able to take their ethnic food outside their enclaves to the larger American public. It begins with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which forced the transnational Chinese community to devise new institutions to continue its migration and maintain connections between those in the United States and their families back home. Paradoxically, the new institutions that emerged from the crisis broke traditional family bonds and replaced them with individual relationships in the guise of “paper families.” These new institutions were smaller, more profit-oriented, and better funded than earlier ones. They allowed the Chinese to move out of the low-skilled wage work that had been their primary employment and into self-employment. The first industry they chose was laundry, a competitive industry with low capital requirements that effectively offered a subsistence wage to a seemingly unlimited number of people (viewed from the perspective of Chinese immigrant flows) who were willing to work long hours in remote locations. When Americans became interested in exotic food, the Chinese were perfectly situated to respond. No other ethnic group had developed the same kinds of transnational, business-oriented institutions that allowed them to funnel exotic ingredients and young, eager, hardworking, and loyal workers to America and oversee their deployment across communities around the country. Their singular history provided the Chinese with both the motivation and the capacity to carry out America’s first culinary revolution.
Keywords: restaurants, ethnic enterprise, Chinese Exclusion
JEL Classification: J7, J14, J15, J61, L26, L81, N31, N32, N71, N72, N81, N82
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