Sweet and Sour is an emerging collaboration between SITES and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History on Chinese food in America.
Something about Chinese food always draws a crowd, and this morning's Sweet and Sour team meeting was no exception. We found ourselves cramming 11 people around a table meant for six to brainstorm and discuss the content of this epicurean exhibition. All that was missing was the lazy Susan!
Our meeting began with a somewhat counter-intuitive declaration: Chinese food is American food. But really, who doesn't have memories of family dinners at a local Chinese restaurant? From Jewish-American traditions of Chinese food on Christmas to television shows like Yan Can Cook to the 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. (more than all burger joints combined!), Chinese food has become not just an integral part of American food culture but a quintessentially American food.
When Chinese restaurants (which emerged in the mid-19th century as small kitchens offering Chinese immigrants a taste of home) began catering to the American palate, recipes changed. According to Cedric Yeh, the curatorial advisor for this project (and Deputy Chair and Associate Curator in the Division of Armed Forces History in the National Museum of American History), "They were selling the exotic. They were selling China. We haven't eaten Chinese food in over 100 years." Since we've been introduced to the cuisine, our familiarity with "Chinese food" has reached the point that all connotations of "the exotic" have been erased and the ubiquitous Chinese takeout box has come to symbolize a typical American meal in movies and TV.
Sweet and Sour will document this transition and, in doing so, provide a glimpse into the long history of Chinese immigration, exclusion, exoticism, and perseverance in the U.S. The exhibition will highlight the fact that Chinese food today is a uniquely American tradition.
As the discussion turned to ideas for objects and props that would communicate either the "all-American" nature of Chinese food or its historical roots, Cedric laid out a challenge: "There has to be a strong intellectual grounding to the exhibition, but also some flash." After listening to his ideas, Project Director Deborah Macanic smiled and asked, "Cedric, do you believe in kismet?" As it turns out, SITES already has strong connections from previous exhibitions which may help turn Cedric's biggest "wish-list items" into reality.
In addition to these items, the exhibition will include artifacts form the National Museum of American History's new Sweet and Sour collecting initiative. Research specialist Noriko Sanefuji reported back on her recent trip to San Francisco's Chinatown where she went to gather background information for the project. While in SF, she met with Cecilia Chiang, P.F. Chang's mother and a pioneering restaurateur in her own right, along with several other restaurant owners and local historians. Interns are already hard at work scanning the photographs and menus that were given to Noriko on her trip. Keep a lookout for the images in the upcoming issue of Siteline!
It was smiles (and a few stomach rumbles) all around as we ended our meeting. Things are really cooking! Now, where are those fortune cookies?
--Robin Meyer, SITES Publications Intern