Chow and Tiramisu: Explaining American Perceptions of Italian and Chinese Ethnic Cuisines

August 28, 2017
Schwarzman Scholars worked together to create an academic journal, reflecting their ability to think critically about the Middle Kingdom and the implications of its rise. These collections of thoughts come together to form “Xinmin Pinglun,” our Journal dedicated to the publication of the informative and analytical essays of our scholars. As the application deadline for the class of 2019 is approaching and the start of the 2017-2018 academic year is on its way, we are sharing pieces from the second issue of Ximin Pinglun to give insight into the critical thinking and scholarship taking place at Schwarzman College. Here, Christian Føhrby, (Class of 2017) discusses the American perceptions of Italian and Chinese food.

Why do Americans often associate Italian dining with romance, candlelight, and ironed tablecloths, while Chinese food is associated with fast food and lacking hygiene? Why do we prefer to go to an Italian restaurant for a first date while we eat Chinese food when we’re too lazy to cook for ourselves? Why are we happy to pay $20 for a pasta dish at a good restaurant, while paying the same for a noodle dish sounds almost laughable? Clearly, different ethnic cuisines are viewed differently by American consumers. It is important to identify and explain attitudinal differences regarding food, because ethnic food is a potential point of interethnic alienation. Gastronomical stereotyping can amount to microaggressions, which in the long run can perpetuate inaccurate beliefs about cultures and ethnicities, thereby reinforcing ethnic tensions and inequalities.

Chow and Tiramisu: two narratives

The topic of ethnic food is widely recognized in the academic literature on tourism, travel and leisure. However, because of this discipline’s focus on optimization and sales, the problems of ethnic relations are often reduced to business problems. This observation does not satisfy the need for a culturally conscious analysis of the perceptions of ethnic cuisine. This need must be fulfilled by calling upon ‘food anthropology,’ which proves useful in chronicling the arrival and impact of Italian and Chinese cuisines to the US, as well as how they have been portrayed in the public discourse. Food anthropology literature helps diagnose and contextualize why Americans see different ethnic foods in different ways. The contrast is stark: Ranking institutions and culture disseminators worldwide accord Italy the honour of boasting the finest cuisine, and countless pop culture references fortify this image. By contrast, even though Chinese food is the most widely consumed ethnic food in the US, it has often been described with a rhetoric of disgust, and American consumers rank Chinese lower than other foods in terms of freshness, healthiness, and quality. Regardless of the way these cuisines are perceived by the American public, however, they are both widely referred to as “delicious” in online reviews.

The way we talk about food through media – such as food blogs and urban myths – build and reinforce narratives not only about food, but also about the cultures in which the food was developed. Moreover, these narratives are often colored with prejudice. If the public perception of minorities is influenced by public discourse, then the way the public talks and thinks about food (thereby constructing the public discourse) must have an effect on the way they talk and think about members of ethnic minorities. Although food is an imperfect proxy for saying anything about ethnicity, there is a clear discursive relationship between the two. After all, restaurant- goers’ quest for authenticity greatly relies on correspondence between the ethnicities of the food and the people, and if the cook or waiters are not of the same ethnic origin as the food, many customers feel like they have been deprived of some important experience.

Bright and blurred boundaries

New York sociologist Richard Alba’s idea of “bright” and “blurred” boundaries is useful in understanding how ethnic foods garner disparate narratives. Through studies of second-generation assimilation of immigrants in the US, France, and Germany, Alba describes how some immigrant populations are able to “blur” the boundary between themselves and the white majority, while others remain “otherised” and excluded by a “bright” boundary. Alba uses the four rather easily definable criteria of citizenship, religion, language, and race, to determine whether a minority’s boundary with the majority is blurred or bright. He uses this framework to elucidate that Mexicans in the US have fairly blurred boundaries with the white majority, whereas North Africans in France and Turks in Germany have a brighter boundary with their host cultures. The “brightness” or “blurriness” of boundaries affect the extent to which social and cultural integration and assimilation are possible.

In addition to people, bright and blurred boundaries apply to how ethnic foods are viewed by a majority. In an American context, almost all of Alba’s evaluation criteria predict a much brighter boundary for Chinese people than for Italians. Italians migrated to the US earlier than the Chinese, are generally Christian, are more integrated linguistically, and, of course, can easily fit in as part of the white majority. Conversely, Chinese people are immediately identifiable by their physical appearance. Italian culture is also made more familiar to Americans because of the “mere exposure effect”, a psychological phenomenon that means that the more time one spends on something, the more one tends to like it: Many more Americans have visited Italy than have visited China, either in person or through the media, and more Italians live in the US than Chinese and have done so for a greater duration of American history. Even more specifically, the existence of bright and blurred boundaries is readily observable in food. Chinese food is primarily bought in restaurants, while Italian food is often cooked at home. In fact, many of Italian dishes, (not least pizza and spaghetti) have become so familiar that they are not considered “ethnic” any more. Similarly, most Americans can name a whole range of Italian dishes in Italian (from carpaccio to ravioli and vermicelli), whereas they resort to English to name most Chinese dishes (as in “noodle soup” or “sweet and sour chicken”), perhaps with a few exceptions such as chow mein, and lo mein, which correspond roughly to their Cantonese names. It is worth noting how the language itself differentiates between the two cuisines.

The limit of bright and blurred boundaries

With bright and blurred boundaries providing the basis for our analysis, I now turn to two specific phenomena that the framework seems unable to explain: First, there are important exceptions to the general observation that Italian food is very familiar and Chinese food less so. In spite of being familiar, Italian food remains exotified and ridden with persistent, if not always negative, stereotypes. For example, the American chain “Fazoli’s” uses clear mafia imagery to sell its food. The mafia is a recurring theme in advertising American Italian food, and so is romanticism. The mere word “romantic” refers to Italy’s capital, and Italian food is associated with candlelight and music to a much greater extent than Chinese food is. Of course, Chinese is still the most popular ethnic cuisine in the US, which is unexplained by the “bright and blurred boundaries” framework.

The “brightness” or “blurriness” of boundaries affect the extent to which social and cultural integration and assimilation are possible.

Second, there is a qualitative difference not captured by the “familiarity” discourse, which I propose to call “sophistication” – the quality that causes Italian food to be perceived by many Americans as sophisticated while Chinese food is seen as cheap: Italian food is associated with good wines while the Chinese national liqueur, baijiu, awakens few palates in the West. Chinese food, sometimes subject to urban myths of containing cats and dogs is not just unfamiliar, but often viewed as outright dirty. In comparison, Italian food comes in different forms, from high Michelin to family chain pizzerias, but it is never perceived as downright dirty. In contrast to Italian food, the richness and diversity of Chinese cuisine also has a way of being essentialized and reduced, if only rhetorically, to simply “Chinese food”, often conceptually lumped together as one uniform “dish” alongside fast food categories such as “pizza” and “burger”. This rhetorical categorisation of Chinese food as fast food may simply be based on the fact that this is the context in which most Americans encounter it. However, this conception serves to perpetuate a very particular narrative of what Chinese food is. The “bright and blurred boundaries” framework fails to capture this “sophistication” quality. To address these complications then, I propose to add two independent causal factors: cultural spectacle and socioeconomic history.

Cultural spectacle

The idea of cultural spectacle is that ethnic restaurants provide more than just food. As Edward Saïd famously suggested, culture is something that can be consumed, and restaurant goers expect more than just to be fed – they expect to be entertained! Restaurants are businesses, and are willing to provide a cultural spectacle in order to be competitive. For example, an Italian restaurant in the US might over-emphasize its use of green, white, and red, or it might try to generate an “old world” romantic theme. Plenty of Italian food myths are perpetuated in the US, one example being the steak. Steak has no Italian origin, but is still happily served after the tomato soup because that is what the customer wants. Likewise, the popular dessert cannoli in its current form is largely an American invention. Chinese cuisine is even more exotified of course, and entering a Chinese restaurant can be like entering another world entirely, with red lanterns and colourful aquariums. Food items Americans know from the Chinese menus, such as deep fried king prawns, crab rangoons, and fortune cookies, are essentially unknown in China. Similarly, most Chinese food establishments in the US are either focused on take-away or are buffet- style, which is ironic because take-away was not common in China until the era of McDonaldisation and buffets still remain a rarity.

Cultural spectacle is a situation engineered by “ethnic entrepreneurs” for a profit, a practice even dubbed “food pornography” by playwright Frank Chin. In this way, restaurants seek to uphold a level of orientalist exoticity to attract customers, while balancing this with a level of familiarity so as not to alienate customers either. An idealistic approach might be that “ethnic food both attempts to fit the market (demand producing supply), while altering that market over time (supply producing demand). However, individual restaurants are not likely to be able to alter demand much, because customers have set expectations of what ethnic cuisines should be like, which creates a certain level of path dependence. Cultural spectacle extends to other ethnic restaurants too. For example, South Asian dishes in Europe and America normally differ markedly from what is consumed in the subcontinent and restaurants even use bodies in their cultural show business: Between 85 and 90 percent of Britain’s “Indian” restaurants and takeaways are owned and staffed by Bangladeshi Muslims who give off the visual impression of being Indian, allegedly because customers “want” an Indian experience and would feel like they got a less authentic meal if their waiting staff were not “the real thing.”

The idea of the cultural spectacle explains why Italian food can be exotified and familiar at the same time. The awareness that restaurant owners try to balance exoticity with familiarity also explains why Chinese food can remain so popular in spite of the stark, bright boundary. However, there still seems to be a missing link that can explain why Chinese food has become so popular. Furthermore, cultural spectacle is only partly helpful in explaining the difference in “sophistication.” While many Italian restaurants seek to exude a degree of sophistication, and many Chinese restaurants continue to use fluorescent lamps and tacky décor, the question still remains whether these choices are entirely deliberate or whether they have some deeper economic cause.

Socioeconomic history

Culinary history is closely bound up with ethnic history and immigration history. In the US, both Italians and Chinese have faced racism, which has exacerbated their otherness. Italians were persecuted for their national affiliation, even lynched during the 19th century, and had their shops and restaurants seized as “enemy property” during the world wars. The Chinese have experienced discrimination to an even greater extent, from practically being used as slave labour during the construction of the American railway systems, to being subject to strict marriage and immigration rules, including being denied the right to become citizens, prohibited from owning real estate, and marrying white people. Chinese food was established early on as a type of fast food in the minds of the consumers, and even the large, expensive Chinese restaurants that exist today have failed to dispel the myth of Chinese food being quicker, cheaper and dirtier. Chinese food was cheap enough to become one of the first things that a rising American middle class could afford when they started to develop disposable income in the early 20th century. In the words of author Chen Yong, “Chop suey was the Big Mac of the pre-McDonalds era.” This, combined with being the first segment to popularize home deliveries, may have been a deciding factor in establishing the popularity of Chinese food. It was affordable and available. Adding to this the taste and the cultural spectacle from above, it is no wonder Chinese food has persisted in popularity.

The socioeconomic approach addresses the idea of “sophistication” in pointing to the histories of immigrants who introduced the cuisines in the first place. As mentioned earlier, Chinese immigrants came later to the US than their Italian counterparts, and were generally poorer when they did – one explanation for why early Chinese restaurateurs may have opted for a hole-in-the-wall solution rather than a larger restaurant. Low starting capital would have meant lower overall hygiene, and combined with the orientalist mythology and rampant discrimination described above, it is easy to see where the stories about cat and dog meat in the food may have originated. Seeing as well how stereotypes can be persistent, it is reasonable to assume that path dependency may have caused these perceptions to linger well into the 21st century. If people associate Chinese food with fast food, and if they think that fast food is less sophisticated, then it is obvious why there exists a perceived difference in sophistication between Chinese and Italian food.

Food is a performance, influenced consciously by restaurateurs, advertisers, pop culture, and other discourse creators.

Factoring in socioeconomics also explains why Japanese food, which, like Chinese food, is clearly separated from American culture with a bright boundary, has achieved a higher level of perceived sophistication. Japanese food was not widespread in the US until the 1980s and has not had the history of small hole-in-the-wall establishments serving the working classes. Similarly, a cultural spectacle approach would suggest that the Japanese signature dish, sushi, has been culturally staged as a high-skill craft, studied at the finest sushi schools and performed through glass panes for the consumer to see. It remains interesting to follow how perceptions may be changed in the years to come: With China’s growing global soft power and with rising Chinese immigration to the U.S., the narrative about Chinese food is unlikely to be written in stone.

Conclusions and implications

Most Americans are aware that the ethnic food available to them is not the same as that which is available in the country of origin. However, perceptions matter, and if it is American-Chinese food that Americans make their inferences about Chinese food from, then that is what must be studied. This also means that food is not just food: Food is also a performance, influenced consciously by restaurateurs, advertisers, pop culture, and other discourse creators. Likewise, food has a history, and both its reputation and its form are influenced by it. As consumers, and as members of multi-ethnic societies, we must cultivate an awareness of this, so as not to become prisoners to our own constructed realities.

British food critic A. A. Gill once said that there is no such thing as “ethnic food”: “It is a pejorative, judgmental and unnecessary term invented by the French to describe food in the Michelin Guide that isn’t French or Italian”. This is a bold statement, and whether or not we approve of the wording, it provides a valuable lesson on when and how it is acceptable to use (or abuse?) a culture in the pursuit of customers. It also reminds us that it is worth re-examining damaging and essentialist expectations, such as the idea that, for example, good Italian food cannot be cooked by a Mexican. The takeaway: We can improve our understanding about food if we have an awareness of how familiar or unfamiliar a cultural practice is, to what extent it is staged, and in what way it was been influenced by history.

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Christian Føhrby (Class of 2017) is from Denmark, and graduated from Harvard University.