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Omnivore - Is it 'total, bourgeois orientalist crap'?

Andrew Coe on dining in a Chinese restaurant

Image Andrew Coe, the author of Chop Suey: a Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, blogs occasionally for the Atlantic Monthly. His most recent post is entitled "The Dos and Don'ts of Ordering Chinese.".

The post is good advice for newbie visitors to Chinese restaurants. I agree with some of the commenters who wish that the post had gone farther into the more esoteric aspects of Chinese dining. But that complaint in turn brings up the usual conundrum of authenticity. One commenter makes the same point I argued recently that "authentic" and "good tasting" aren't by any means necessarily the same:

I'm all for Americans enjoying authentic Chinese cuisine, but this piece is total bourgeois orientalist crap. If you want good food (or authentic food- contrary to American foodie delusions, they're only sometimes the same thing), try having a conversation with your server about what sort of food you want! Don't play-act your conception of Chinese behavior in the hopes that they decide to make you an honorary Chinese person. Jesus christ. This article could not be more "stuff white people like."

I find this elitist white American quest for "authenticity" troubling in general. I managed a Chinese restaurant for a long time, and few things annoyed me more than Americans who ordered authentic Chinese dishes (a wish we were happy to accommodate) and then talked openly about how everything else we served was crap, and seemed to think we shouldn’t be offended because they liked the “real stuff” so much.

I think the comment is a bit harsh, since Coe's schtick is about the interaction of American culture and Chinese cooking. I don't think he argues that Chinese-American cuisine is "inauthentic."

Another of Coe's posts, "Chinese Brown Sauce: A Detective Story," particularly resounds with me. I detest most brown sauces served in Chinese restaurants. A few years ago, though, I discovered exactly what Coe recounts: if you tell the server you don't want the usual icky brown sauce, the kitchen will prepare something zippier — more, um, authentic and much better tasting.

By the way, the Southern Foodways Alliance documentary project features an interview with Frank Ma in which he touches on the subject of authenticity in Chinese cooking in Atlanta.