Boomers Ate Chinese Take-Out

Optimism reigned supreme after World War II as young couples migrated to the suburbs from cramped city dwellings, taking their food and cultures with them. Yet following two decades of culinary sacrifice, first due to the Depression, and then rationing during the War, young parents with their Baby Boomer children were ready for an expansion of their flavor options.

While today you’d be hard pressed not to find ethnic foods in chain supermarkets, and all types of ethnic restaurants in every city of a decent size, most boomers will attest to the fact that this was not the case in the 1950s, ’60s and even the ’70s in some regions. Two ethnic varieties that did thrive in the era were Italian and Chinese. A closer examination, however, shows that both cuisines were popular before the War. In fact, as far back as the end of the 19th century, people were enjoying these cuisines that proliferated through the immigrants who come to America. Very quickly, though, these early restauranteurs discovered American tastes were different than what they were used to in the old country. Consequently, the cuisines were altered to suit the increasingly homogenized American palate. By the 1950s, Italian-American foods like chicken parmigiana and spaghetti with meatballs were commonplace, to say nothing of pizza. The same was true of a Chinese-American hybrid.

While these two ethnic varieties were among the first to catch on with a burgeoning middle class, it’s Chinese food that sparks Mister Boomer’s interest the most. Since Mister B is part Italian, the food he ate at his grandmother’s house, especially, wasn’t “Italian” — it was just “food.” Conversely, Mister Boomer first recalls hearing about Chinese food in his suburb when his mother expressed a desire for chop suey. Going to restaurants was more the exception than the rule at that time, as Mister B’s family mainly ate out on Mother’s Day and Easter, or if the family was on a vacation. Take-out food was as rare as going to a restaurant. There was a McDonald’s, Burger Chef and Burger King in the neighborhood, a couple of pizzerias, a Chinese restaurant, a couple of family restaurants and a local take-out-only chicken place, but again, it was considered a “treat” to get take-out.

Mister B’s mom wasn’t alone in her taste for chop suey, since it had been around for decades before she was born. There is an American legend that puts the invention of chop suey in San Francisco in the late 1800s. The story goes that late one night, Chinese cooks were faced with feeding miners (or politicians or rich city dwellers — the story varies) and, having run out of ingredients, combined the day’s leftovers into a stir fry. Food historians now agree that though a good story, chop suey was actually brought to the U.S. by Chinese immigrants since it was a local dish in Toisan, a district near Canton. The Cantonese name, tsap seui literally means miscellaneous scraps. Bean sprouts are one of the ethnic foods that were a staple of chop suey, but after that, the dish was composed of whatever was on hand to toss into a stir fry. American ingredients made their way into the mix, too, like ground beef, tomatoes and corn, so an Americanized Chinese food may have gotten its start with chop suey.

When Mister B’s mom could convince his father that she wanted chop suey, there was only one place to go; the local Chinese restaurant also had take-out. Mister Boomer recalls that there were mainly two things on the take-out menu in the late 1950s and early ’60s: chop suey and chow mein, with your choice of pork, chicken or beef. Like chop suey, chow mein — which means fried noodles — came to America with Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s. Also like chop suey, it was popular for decades as an economical meal. Bohemians in the 1920s were known to ingest the dish, and the frugality of ingredients made it a popular choice during the Depression, too.

Unfortunately, Mister Boomer thought both options were awful. One had a base of rice while the other had fried noodles, but he found both flavorless. Little did he know that things would get worse, in the form of Chun King canned chow mein. Canned foods were big in the Boomer household, so Mister B does not know why his mother did not latch onto Chun King canned foods at an earlier date, but he knows Chun King chow mein was regularly in the cupboard by the early-60s. In fact, the product was first introduced in 1947 by Jeno Paulucci, an entrepreneur who saw the popularity of chop suey and chow mein as an underserved market for ethnic foods that could be eaten at home. In 1957, Mr. Paulucci patented the Divider-Pak. This system separated the noodles and sauce from the other ingredients in two cans: a smaller one for the noodles and a packet of sauce sat on top of a larger can of the ingredients. They were taped together to form a single unit for purchase.

By any stretch of the imagination, Mister Boomer hated the nights when his mother craved Chun King. To Mister B, the predominant flavor was salt, and not much else. In 1966, Mr. Paulucci sold his company to R. J. Reynolds for $63 million dollars, and he went on to invent pizza rolls by combining America’s favorite ethnic cuisines at the time, Chinese and Italian.

Mister Boomer doesn’t eat chow mein to this day, and chop suey is hardly visible on the menus of places he might frequent. Mister B would not consider purchasing any ethnic food that comes in a can, either. When he wants to vary his flavor options, his neighborhood Japanese, Polish, Italian, Israeli, Portuguese, Colombian, Chinese, Thai, Turkish, Indian, Mexican, Lebanese and Greek restaurants will suffice, thank you very much.

Did your family eat Chun King canned products, boomers? How about take-out for chop suey?

Boomers Had a Different Thanksgiving

‘Twas the weekend before Thanksgiving
And all through the place
People shopping for ingredients
At a furious pace.

The market shelves were stocked
to the brim with care
In anticipation that Turkey Day
would soon be there.

On sale was the butter,
brown sugar and yams;
Fried onions and chicken broth,
both in a can.

On turkey! On gravy!
On Brussels sprouts on a stalk.
Traditional items were there —
No need to squawk.

But something was different
It wasn’t the same feel;
Wall-to-wall Christmas music
Made Thanksgiving shopping surreal.

You don’t have to be an aging boomer to realize that the Christmas “season” seems to be arriving earlier and earlier with each passing year. Mister Boomer, for one, enjoys some fun holiday songs (can you say, “What’s Christmas without Darlene Love?”). However, when Mister B did his THANKSGIVING shopping this weekend, the prospect of a full month-plus of Christmas music didn’t cut it in his book.

When we were young boomers, part of the great fun of all holidays — including Thanksgiving — was the anticipation of events and foods that would only happen once a year. Mister Boomer has written about anticipation before (Boomers Learned to Wait), but this is more than that. There are concrete differences in the Thanksgivings of forty or fifty years ago and today.

Mister Boomer submits for your approval three basic categories for these differences: the gathering; the meal; and the singularity of the holiday.

The Gathering
Thanksgiving, like most holidays in our boomer days, were all about family getting together. Extended families often met around a Thanksgiving table. Aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbors and family friends all held a place of honor around the table. Or, should we say, tables. There were often far too many people for one table. The first break was the kids’ table (Boomers Sat at the Kids’ Table). If need be, a tertiary table was set up. These could often be “card tables” — which were fixtures in practically every boomer home. Our parents played card games of many types, and the folding table was put to use for those instances between holidays. As a last-case scenario, TV trays could be used for visitor overflow. Most boomer houses had some form of TV tray set. Mister Boomer’s family got theirs the same way they got the folding table and chairs — trading stamps.

For the first couple of decades after the War, most family members lived within fifty miles of each other, so gathering together was more or less implicit. The Boomer Generation would be the first to move further from home in large numbers — first for college, then for employment or a “better groove.”

Family size also played a role in the size of the gatherings. Since The Pill wasn’t approved for contraception use until 1960, many early boomers, like their parents, came from large families. It was not the least bit unusual for families to have two, four, six or more children.

People dressed up for holidays, too — even the children. Little girls wore dresses and boys wore white shirts and dress slacks. Some men wore ties, but only an occasional uncle did that in Mister B’s house.

The Table Setting
In Mister Boomer’s experience, his family’s table design never reached the level of artistic expression. Rather, it was more form-follows-function in his house. On rare occasions, if someone sent flowers, there was a harvest-colored centerpiece. Otherwise, it was either a bowl of fruit and mixed nuts, or more often than not, nothing at all. Cramped quarters didn’t leave table space for frivolities when dish after dish needed the real estate.

The place setting, however, was one thing that helped make it a holiday. In Mister B’s family, it meant eating on the good china. His mother had acquired her full set of china the same way many mothers of boomers did — by purchasing one piece at a discount each week at the supermarket. The dishes remained in the cupboard except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Again, the Boomer family children could bask in the glow of another holiday, knowing it was made special with supermarket china. Cloth napkins often accompanied the place setting — another special touch. One year, Mister B’s father discovered the “wonder” of the cloth-like Vanity Fair paper napkins, and the family’s set of cloth napkins never returned.

You’re the One
Each holiday had its own identity, from colors to events to foods. For Mister B’s Upper Midwest locale, the events were a parade in the morning, which Mister Boomer’s father wanted to attend every year in his early days, and football. In later years, Mister B’s father would attend the games. Dinner would be held until he returned. Except for those times, dinner was usually served between one and two o’clock. It was, according to Mister B’s mother, all about when the turkey was ready. An electric roaster in the basement was where the turkey roasted for hours. Mister B’s mother, like boomer mothers everywhere, got up very early to start the bird, which often tipped the scales at 15-20 pounds.

The TV was never turned on during the meal. Nor were there any records or radios playing. The meal was intended for conversation among the assembled. In Mister B’s house, the dining room was too small and the table positioned in such a way that the TV wasn’t visible from there. The kids’ table sat in the living room as an extension to the dining room table. The kids had a view, but it was not turned on, not that much would have been on that children would enjoy anyway.

Today many families keep up the traditions of their parents, with little marshmallows in the sweet potatoes and a green bean casserole, but often that is where it ends. Families are smaller today than they were in the 1950s and ’60s. Many households do not even possess a roasting pan large enough to hold a turkey, and many do not own “good” china. Boomers may have been the first generation to exhibit this trait. Mister B recalls when Brother Boomer got married and invited the family to his new apartment for Thanksgiving; he got a ticket for speeding when he raced to his mother-in-law’s to borrow a roasting pan. Mister Boomer doesn’t own a roasting pan that large to this day. Having moved eight times in the past 30 years, things like china and roasting pans were not exactly on the must-have list.

Smaller families, people living further apart, seniors and couples with no children living in their homes — and some families — are opting for a restaurant experience on Thanksgiving these days. This was a rarity in our day, but in Mister B’s opinion, it’s a good concession. Not everyone wants to cook a big meal, or spend the day with large numbers of relatives in their house. Today’s double-income families with shared cooking responsibilities changes the landscape, too.

Don’t even get Mister B started on the insanity that has become Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving. This year, more stores are actually opening on Thanksgiving day. That would have NEVER happened in our boomer years.

Yes, Thanksgiving is a different experience for our children and their children than what we knew. Fifty years from now, they will probably be saying the same thing.

Like Mister Boomer, are you feeling the need for a little more nostalgia this holiday? Try an encore reading of this classic Mister B posting: Boomer Turkey Days.

What’s different in your household this Thanksgiving, boomers?