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Cold-Pressed: Culture in a Styrofoam Container

Opinion | April 22, 2016

New York. The city of glass and steel behemoths, endless sensory stimulation, and perhaps the mecca of Chinese take-out. Many New Yorkers live off of endless moo-shu pork and lo mein, never having to walk more than a city block in order to get their fix. This ease of accessibility seems to be rather standard across most of the United States. Most would not consider going out for Chinese to be particularly new or exciting any longer, but about three generations ago it was the next biggest trend in American culture.

According to Time’s “A Very Brief History of Chinese Food in America,” Chinese restaurants and cuisine in the US went through a tumultuous time parallel to the explicit racism many Asian immigrants faced through the late 19th and 20th centuries. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese laborers from moving to the United States, encouraged a racist fear of the Chinese, such as the stereotypical notion of “eating rats and dogs.” But at the same time, an interest in the growing opportunity to enjoy good Chinese cuisine was beginning to develop. The spread of Chinese culture and cuisine during the ‘50s and ‘60s in America was growing at unprecedented rates. Nixon’s trips to Asia and the repeal of the Exclusion Act allowed an influx of Chinese immigrants, as well as their native foods, to arrive. Many Americans became infatuated with Chinese cuisine and the sudden rise in its accessibility within many cities. For families, friends, and romantic dates alike, going out to get Chinese was certainly a special treat.

But like all fads, the novelty of eating something as exciting as egg rolls or sweet and sour chicken faded away. The fast-food culture of Chinese food in major cities only justifies this claim. We expect take-out to be easily accessible, and it’s come to represent a sort of greasy comfort food for all-nighters and break-ups. Lost in this popularization is any recognition of the oppression that paved Chinese food’s path to explosive popularity.

And then came Mexican food. The Houston Press explained that Tex-Mex, which originated in 1945 as Texas chefs began to adopt Mexican dishes into their cooking repertoires, was rapidly popularized during the ‘70s when culinary expert Diana Kennedy published “The Cuisines of Mexico.” Long before the days of Chipotle inflaming intestines across the country with bacterial diseases, our parents were inundated with new Mexican, specifically Tex-Mex, options. The passé, conditioned Chinese establishments were no longer enticing or new, as the spicy cuisine and flour tortillas of Mexico had become the hottest thing in town.

I think this cyclical existence of intense interest followed by a decrease after a certain amount of exposure is partly human, but also specific to US values. Whenever I eat at Acapulco, my favorite Mexican restaurant back home, it doesn’t feel any more special than heading to the local bar or burger joint. A new food category is first seen as enticing, but becomes dull after some time. This is a notable pattern—Americans appropriating certain aspects of foreign cultures and modifying them to suit their tastes. It was not until Texan cooks adapted Mexican food with their own spins that the cuisine rapidly gained popularity. The use of spicy hot chilies is a staple of American Mexican food, whereas traditional Mexican food uses it as a condiment. Americans now falsely associate spice with “authentic” Mexican cooking. And in order to be “authentic,” and thus retain a customer base, many Mexican restaurant owners have had to conform to the ideals set by Americans who redesigned their cultural foods.

I think the current, fairly well-established trend is Thai food. Most people still see foods like tom yum and yellow curry as treats, but dishes like pad thai have increasingly begun to transition into the fast food category like Chinese dishes did before them. Yet another cuisine has had to conform to the American power dynamic and become “fast” in order to cater to the nation’s convenience. I also think the newest, most “non-Occidental” food trend right now would have to be Ethiopian restaurants. The family style meat dishes are accompanied with sourdough flatbread showcase spices, traditionally mixes of chili, garlic, and fenugreek called bebere, that are so unique to this East African culture. And restaurants seem to be opening up in every major city on the East and West Coasts. Like Chinese, Mexican, and Thai in the past, Ethiopian food is a special treat that is just beginning to infiltrate into mainstream America. But if history repeats itself, foods like wat will soon be housed in take-home boxes and delivered to doorsteps across the country.