Chop Suey, General Tso’s Chicken, fortune cookies. I will admit to having eaten (and enjoyed) each of these. Trouble is, none of them is actually Chinese. Chop Suey is the English transliteration of the Cantonese word for leftovers. Zuo Zongtang was a general from the Qing dynasty and, unlike Colonel Sanders, does not have any known affiliation with battered fried chicken. The dish most likely was introduced in New York City in the 1970s to cater to local tastes. Fortune cookies were first offered by Japanese bakers in San Francisco, later sold to US Chinese restaurants as a gimmick, and are unknown in Mainland China and Taiwan. For a comprehensive and witty treatment of the localization of Chinese food, check out Jennifer Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.
Real Chinese food is light, vibrant and always fresh. It is predominately comprised of vegetables and grains, with fish and tofu as main sources of protein, and meats used more as flavorings in dishes than as a main course. Another key is the selection of raw materials. My mother-in-law has an extremely small refrigerator. There is plenty of room for a larger one, but she would not have any use for it. Each morning, as the sun is rising, she heads to market to buy only the food we need for that day. She has been doing this for so long that she has personal relationships with all of the farmers from which she buys. In one quick exchange, she will find out what is good that day, what things will be ripe next week, what the farmer’s plans are for future crop mix, and even how their kids are doing in school. The only tricky part is arguing with the vendor to keep the change, which they will try to stuff in Mama’s pocket as she runs away.
How many of us really know where our food is sourced? Do you know when something came from your own town? Growing up in southern New Jersey, we would often pass small produce stands at the ends of local farmers’ driveways where they had placed a small stock of fruits and vegetables that had not been shipped out to a distributor that day. Beyond that, it gets tough. What about your own state? Sometimes the IGA might feature something from a farm in a neighboring county on an end cap, but other than that we are pretty much left to figure it out ourselves. At least we know the country of origin, right? Some of Whole Foods 365 Organic branded items are sourced in China, and chemical testing has suggested the veracity of the organic certification is dubious. Switzerland has been on the war path to trademark the name “Swiss cheese” and limit its use only to cheese actually produced within its borders, similar to how sommeliers will insist that Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France. Talking at length about the provenance of wine and cheese does start to border on elitism, but illustrates the point that we often have no clue about the origin of our food, and even approved labeling frequently turns out to be of little to no value. Ok, at least we can rest assured that our food came from somewhere on planet Earth. With things like Acesulfame Potassium, Butylated Hydroxyanisole, Heptyl Paraben, Propyl Gallate and Sodium Nitrite on the ingredients list of many processed foods, I begin to wonder about that too.
For the first five years of my life I lived in the most rural corner of Chester County, PA. Being on the border with Lancaster County, we counted as neighbors the Amish community and their abundant farmland. We also had our own garden that supplied a significant proportion of our household needs during the warmer months. Though, once I had learned to walk I routinely confiscated and consumed the entire strawberry patch before anyone else had a fair chance. Visits to Grandpa’s house meant following him around his garden, where he would feed me peas and lima beans right off the vines as he worked. After moving to New Jersey we had a little less space in the yard and a little less free time, as the demands of careers and school began taking larger shares. I made a brief attempt at a small vegetable patch, but in general the best we could do was periodically run over to my friend Carl’s family farm. We would get a few baskets of whatever was fresh that day (usually corn or green beans) then argue with Carl’s aunt over not accepting our money and stuffing it into her pocket as we ran away. (There seems to be some international agreement on farmers not accepting money) Without qualification, I can still say that the Paulaitis’ grow the best Silver Queen around.
Leaving home to go to college marked the beginning of my reeducation about food. At Oberlin, home of the loveliest and crunchiest people on the planet, I learned about organic this and free trade that. My girlfriend, and still wonderful friend, Lis introduced me to Cleveland’s West Side Market. When I lived in Philadelphia I commandeered the balcony to grow an herb garden. A lot of great things came out of my time at the University of Virginia, not the least of which was a Master’s degree and meeting my wife. But one of my most favorite things to do was Saturday morning visits to the local famers market, where I could stock my kitchen and meet the people of “real” Charlottesville. Now that we are so close to New York, we make regular use of the network of greenmarkets. We are big box grocers’ worst nightmare.
On a recent trip to China we had to do a lot of traveling, which meant much food was consumed in restaurants. While all of it was tasty, and definitely a far cry from American take-out, none of it could hold a candle to the simple, elegant home cooked food from our weekend respite at Mama and Baba’s house. I hope that in our collective quests for professional growth and achievement, this time-tested way of living and eating is not irreversibly lost.