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NYC Program Explores History of Chinese American Cuisine


Hamilton’s Program in New York City made the trek from Manhattan to Brooklyn to visit the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in Williamsburg. MOFAD’s current exhibit, “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant,” dovetails neatly with the NYC program’s food-focused curriculum, which emphasizes the impact of immigration on the development of American cuisine.

 “I had wanted us to see this very new museum ‘lab.’ In a stroke of serendipity, its opening last November coincided with our food-oriented semester,” said program director Professor of Creative Writing Naomi Guttman. “The current exhibit on the evolution of the Chinese-American restaurant is a perfect lens for studying the history of immigration as well as what happens when a very specific food culture is modified to suit the tastes of the majority.”

The exhibit traces the 170-year history of Chinese restaurants in the United States and the development of the uniquely Chinese American food now served in nearly 50,000 restaurants in the U.S.

MOFAD emphasizes the cultural and political forces which shaped this history, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the racism faced by Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans. It also highlights the contributions of chefs and restauranteurs like Cecilia Chiang, who has been called “the Julia Child of Chinese food in America.” Featuring an extensive collection of Chinese restaurant menus dating back to 1910 and even a fortune cookie machine, the exhibit draws upon a wealth of influences.

“I think the MOFAD has a small exhibit but has rich contents. They do not only have objective historical facts, but also personal stories about the immigrants' survival and success in the States,” said Alice Chen ’18. “I find the contents relatable even in the current political environment.”

The visit to MOFAD was a logical extension of the previous week’s tour of the markets and restaurants of Manhattan’s Chinatown.

“What’s great about the exhibit is that it pays tribute to how food and family, both incredibly important aspects of Chinese culture, played such integral parts in the fight against discrimination. It’s really an American immigration story we need to talk about more,” Gregg Nabhan ’18 said.

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