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?