Everybody who’s seen The Godfather knows the scene where everyone is sitting around eating Chinese food while waiting for info on the location of Michael’s meeting. Was bringing in Chinese food something people did in the 1940’s (as opposed to only eating it in restaurants and maybe bringing home some leftovers), or is this an anachronism?
Chinese take out was already a thing in NYC at least. I believe in NYC they started close to the turn of the century.
Extra info: The Take out boxes:
The earliest version of the Chinese takeout container was patented by inventor Frederick Weeks on November 13, 1894. Weeks’ invention – which he referred to as a “paper pail” – was made from a single piece of paper that was folded into a virtually leak-proof container and secured with a wire handle.
Coppola had that detail included because, “My father liked Chinese food, and I always remembered what it looked like in the really white containers — not like the ones today that have the little red pagodas on them.”
Didn’t Chinese food start out as street food? Which would mean that it was only take out in the beginning.
I’d assume the Chinese were eating food in huts prior to even having streets.
My Jewish grandparents had 5 sets of dishes in the house (Brooklyn, 30s and 40s): milk and meat for everyday use, milk and meat for Passover, and one set for Chinese takeout.
I think “American style Chinese food” has been rattling around a lot longer than some of the other cuisines that have been bastardized into the American experience. There was a family of Chinese immigrants running a Chinese restaurant that had styling similar enough to what you’d expect in the 1920s in Charleston, WV for example (it just recently closed, the newest generation of the family became doctors and lawyers and the elderly couple who were running it had no one to turn the business over to–running a restaurant is hard work.)
True. But I was referring to Chinese immigrants to America in the 19th(ish) century.
I don’t know that that’s entirely true, and it probably depends on precisely what you mean. I think the best understanding we have for “American Chinese food” is actually food from smaller towns associated with the railroad and mining industries.
San Francisco by 1850 when it was incorporated had several Chinese restaurants, and was the main hub of Chinese immigration in the United States. However, San Francisco’s old China Town was primarily featuring “real” Chinese restaurants, made to serve Chinese people actual authentic Chinese food. Some of these restaurants had become palatial and fancy by the 1880s, as San Francisco’s China Town developed its own upper class, but the restaurants were still primarily geared towards Chinese customers.
American Chinese food came about as sort of an echo of this Chinese immigration in the West, while the fancy places in San Francisco were ran by trained Chinese chefs, smaller Chinese food places started to open along rail lines, and small towns that were at the intersection of rail and mining interests. These were frequently run by Chinese who were trained only as home cooks, and who were filtering out through America looking for economic opportunity. Initially they served Chinese railroad workers and miners, but without the huge concentration of something like San Francisco’s China Town, they eventually realized they needed to get white customers too. They started to experiment with changing the food to suit American tastes–interestingly many of them in the latter half of the 19th century were just selling straight copies of what they perceived as American foods–apple pies, beans etc. Eventually and the origin are murky, they started creating a new type of cuisine “inspired” by their own but manifested into what they perceived would be successful in the United States.
The real genesis of this type of food was really small-town America, particularly places associated with railroads and mining. It spread, unlike most things in that era, from West to East. By the time it got to NYC I think is when it started to really advance towards its “final form”, and once it became popular in New York it could spread out everywhere, because New York was the preeminent city of the country and people who visit there and try this new food out, creating demand for it elsewhere. I’ve always heard that New York’s Jewish population was also a significant factor in American Chinese food becoming so popular there by the turn of the 20th century.
While I think it was certainly sold from carts and on the streets, I think the phenomenon is really a relic of 19th century small railroad and mining towns that would have a few Chinese entrepreneurs running little restaurants to make a buck. This became even more prominent after 1915–a special visa was created at that time for merchants, and was actually the only legal way for Chinese people to immigrate to the United States during the years when Asian immigration was otherwise banned.
I’m sure you’re right. I’m just going off vague memories of an article I read.
While the OP is asking specifically about carryout, here a menu from a 1940s NYC Chinese restaurant. Takeout isn’t mentioned (I think this place is pretty high-end) but the menu is huge and it’s clear the cuisine is well established.
Of course. I think it’s likely the answer is lost in the details of history. The first Chinese food vendors on the west coast could have been serving immigrants on the street without notice by the majority population. So the appearance of a high end Chinese restaurant to serve immigrants and the general public might be the first observed outlet for Chinese food even if there were existing street vendors. Coming east to the larger cities the same thing could happen where the small street vendor, serving immigrants only or the general public as well could be lost behind the more newsworthy full service restaurants that developed, and be seen by far more people than a local neighborhood street vendor would encounter.
What I would find interesting is the street food traditions in China that might have been carried here by some. Possibly some variety of Chinese noodles were common street food in the 19th(ish) century that immigrants could easily duplicate here before any established restaurants were established.
Cool! Notable there are three separate Chop Suey sections, and the second half of the menu is clearly intended mostly for the Chinatown locals.“Chop Suey” enjoyed a bit of a craze in the roaring 20s. Otherwise it doesn’t look all that different from a standard American Chinese Takeout menu from today, even down to the “American Sandwiches” section.
In China bowls of noodles would be common, as would mantou (steamed buns) and baozi (mantou with filling), rice balls, chicken/duck feet, crepes, and various things roasted on sticks.
I see from Eating Out, Eating In: A Brief History of Takeout in America that Chinese restaurants were doing delivery as far back as the 1920s. I guess since I’ve never seen people eating Chinese takeout in a movie made from the 1940s that I thought of it as something more recent. I think also A Christmas Story and the episode “Aunt Bee’s Restaurant” from The Andy Griffith Show made me think it was more of a dining out food, not takeout.
Another vintage menu with Chinese items from 1932, posted just today. This one is spoilered as there’s some nudity and racially insensitive images:
These menu’s are awesome. The romanization is completely bastardized from some southern dialect, but a bunch of the names/dishes are the same today. Love it
heres a book that answers a lot of questions that are brought in this thread
here’s the synopsis :
f you think McDonald’s is the most ubiquitous restaurant experience in America, consider that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Wendys combined. New York Times reporter and Chinese-American (or American-born Chinese). In her search, Jennifer 8 Lee traces the history of Chinese-American experience through the lens of the food. In a compelling blend of sociology and history, Jenny Lee exposes the indentured servitude Chinese restaurants expect from illegal immigrant chefs, investigates the relationship between Jews and Chinese food, and weaves a personal narrative about her own relationship with Chinese food.
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles speaks to the immigrant experience as a whole, and the way it has shaped our country
Its a short but interesting book ( its the first one of a few shes written on the subject) the author became an amateur Chinese restaurant/food historian by accident she covered a story where 37 people split around 8 million Powerball jackpot by picking the exact same numbers … that they found in a fortune cookie slip and she tried interviewing all the owners of the restaurants where cookies were given out and went down a rabbit hole that led to the book
Takeout Chinese food was a well-established thing in all the big cities I’ve lived in since the 60’s (Philadelphia, Cleveland, Miami, Houston). And by seeing it portrayed in classic movies and early TV, one can surmise that it was a thing at least in NYC and LA for decades before.
This (very funny) Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca sketch from a 1952 episode of Your Show of Shows is all about Chinese takeout:
Interesting that they didn’t use the classic cardboard takeout boxes, but perhaps the show prop department didn’t care about authenticity.
When I was a kid, we hardly ever got take-out (and never home delivery as we were pretty well into the suburbs). So I remember being very excited the first time we got Chinese take-out in those familiar white oyster boxes.
In my childhood we used to get Chinese food takeout from a restaurant in Stapleton (Staten Island) called Ho Wah. They retained their original signage, “The New Republic”, honoring Sun Yat-Sen’s establishment of the Republic of China in 1911.