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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Kung Pao: Reflections on immigration and food

My husband and I visited my parents in Wisconsin last weekend. As we often do when we visit my hometown, we got Chinese take-out for lunch one day. And so I found myself glorious slurping a bowl of Hot and Sour Soup, and reflecting on one of life's greater mysteries. I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin. It is the first county south of Milwaukee. We are a town trying to grow past its industrial roots, famous for our Danish kringle and still home to Insinkerator® and Johnson's Wax®, so there's a good chance that most American households have a lot of Racine unknowingly clustered around their kitchen sink. We have about 90,000 folks. We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a culinary tour de force. However, Racine has a relative embarrassment of riches when it comes to excellent hole-in-the-wall Chinese food. By contrast, Rogers Park, my neighborhood in Chicago, is one of the most diverse census tracks in the entire U.S., with a sizable Asian population including many immigrants. And the Chinese food stinks. As a sociologist by day, and a food blogger when I'm attempting to procrastinate, I thought I would turn my training to this perplexing and irksome culinary puzzle: why is there better Chinese food in Racine Wisconsin than Chicago?


I start my search with a simple, and perhaps incorrect assumption: the best Chinese food will be cooked by Chinese immigrants or Chinese Americans. This is certainly not exclusively true. There are plenty of examples of chefs who gained fame cooking from a tradition that was not theirs by birth (Rick Bayless and his love of Mexican food comes readily to mind). However, in the very non-systematic inventory of all of my Chinese dining experiences, the best were I was eating food prepared by folks who spoke and wrote in Chinese fluently. So I think its a decent place to start.

Working from this starting point, the first thing I did for my little investigation was hop on the US Census Bureau's homepage to find some quick facts. In the zip code where I was born and grew up until I was 18 years old, only 3.3% of our population was foreign born. Only 0.6% of residents are Asian. That works out to 155 people in the whole zip code. By contrast, it turns out that my zip code where I live now in Rogers Park (Chicago), 7.9% of the population is Asian, more than double the U.S. average. Fully 35% of our residents are foreign-born, which is more than three times the U.S. average. I thought that might be just an effect of being in a big city, but the Chicago average foreign born population is only 22%.

But "foreign born" and "Asian" population wasn't enough. So I went probing deeper into the pages of the Census Bureau, and found a file that listed all foreign-born individuals by state of admission and country of birth. Now we're cooking. Here I discover that the state of Illinois welcomed 2571 Chinese Immigrants in 2005, whereas all of Wisconsin received only 593. Only California, New York, and Texas received more Chinese immigrants than Illinois.

If anything, the population data just seems to make our culinary mystery more surprising. Lets just say one out of every hundred people is a good cook. That should mean that each year the entire state of Wisconsin receives just 6 good Chinese cooks, most of whom go to Milwaukee or Madison. But Illinois receives four times as many good cooks, most of whom are drawn to Chicago. But this huge population difference in favor of Chicago doesn't seem to produce local quality Chinese food. So I have to suspect that the way good cooks migrate, and then whether they decide to set up a restaurant, has some interesting pattern to it that helps explain why I can't get good Chinese food even in my highly diverse neighborhood.

After some thinking, this is what I believe is happening. Truly high-end great Chinese cooks are drawn to areas where they can get the highest profile for their cooking. According to the simple data, that means most of them are disproportionately likely to immigrate to New York City or somewhere in California. Those who don't go to California or New York City, who somehow find themselves in the Windy City, are then more likely to concentrate their wild talent in Chicago's Chinatown. This creates some sort of vaccuum: good (but not great) cooks also set up shop in Chinatown or decide the competition is too fierce and so they don't open a restaurant at all. Then, at some point, a number of very average Chinese cooks look around their various other neighborhoods and say to themselves, "Hey, there aren't enough Chinese restaurants here. We should open one up. There's almost no competition!" By contrast, in Racine the good (but not great) chefs know in advance that there isn't much stellar competition. The cost of starting a business (rent, supplies, ingredients) is relatively lower, the competition is lower, and so good cooks who might be nervous entrepreneurs also enter the market. They set up many small but delightful dining establishments. Most serve a variety of Americanized Chinese standards with a few regional or family favorites thrown in. One makes the best kung pao I have had anywhere.

So in the end, it is absolutely true that you can find more stellar, gourmet Chinese food in Chicago than in Racine, but that would require you to drive to Chicago's Chinatown. If you want to get local, delicious take-out in your own zip code, you would be better off in Racine.

11 comments:

Pirouette said...

This is by far the most interesting and sociological analysis of local food that I have ever read. It has sociologist written all over it :).

Jeanne said...

I'm a West Rogers Parker. I agree that Chinese food in Chicago is nothing compared to NYC. The same exact thing is true of Korean food, which is what I grew up on. Interestingly enough, Korean food in Chicago is actually better out in the suburbs. What?!? Anyway, there are a few gems out there. Here are a few options (outside of Chinatown) that I like to frequent.
1. Fast food, but yummy- Chinaling @ 7075 N. Western
2. Atypical, but delicious Chinese food run by people who have lived in both China and Korea (and cater to both groups of people)- Great Beijing @ 6717 N. Lincoln
3. Great dim sum on the northside around Argyle- Furama 4936 N. Broadway

Happy eating on the northside!

katiez said...

Could it also be that a greater concentration of immigrants means they are less interested in preparing their familiar food and more interested in learning the foods of their adoptive country?
Fewer immigrants meaning a greater homesickness...

Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet said...

Pirouette: Thanks! Its always fun to try to bring my day job to bear on my hobby.

Jeanne: Thanks for the great suggestions. I'm definitely game to try it out. I know a friend has taken me to an amazing hole in the wall korean place where we were the only gringos in the place.

Katie: Interesting theory, but in general from my understanding of existing studies, greater concentrations of immigrant populations leads to greater provision of commercially prepared homeland food. Having "co-ethnic" migrants nearby doesnt diminish the desire to practice certain things that are from the homeland, high concentrations usually just allow migrants to express those desires differently (eating out vs at home; more authentic food items at a specialty grocer vs using substitutes etc).

Kate / Kajal said...

Hey Erin ... i had no clue, wow thats a lotta facts . Thnx for sharing ::)

Just wanted to thank you for all the lovely comments you keep dropping off at my blog. I'm so sorry i take so long to get back. I still wish we had met up. But hey , maybe the next time you come down.

Cheers !

Roseanna said...

A student of mine sent me your article since I teach classes on Immigrant Experience and the like (but through literature). What a wonderful idea you have here for an intelligent but accessible blog! Have you read Jennifer 8. Lee's “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food”?

Astra Libris said...

Thank you for an incredibly interesting post! I'm impressed and enlightened! Your hypothesis sounds quite viable to me - fascinating!

Dawn said...

You know I say that exact same thing: why are there no good sushi places on cape cod? I mean this is cape cod, you'd think there would be, right? Nope. You have to go to Boston for decent sushi. Weird.

Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet said...

Roseanna: I havent read the fortune cookie chronicles, but it sounds interesting. I think the explosion of humanities and social science approaches to food within the popular culture realm is really interesting.

Astra: always glad to give you some food for thought. How's the chinese in your neck of the woods?

Dawn: sushi poses its own interesting problems, mostly because it is associated with a smaller group of elite consumers but also has some geographic considerations (proximity to quality seafood). Off the top of my head, I find myself wondering about the image of what it means to be a Cape Codder (Cape Coddite?) which I at least associate with some semi-romanticized Americana that evokes farmers market fare and upscale american fusion dining. Does Cape Cod have a wide variety of other ethnic restaurants or restaurants that would be associated with elite cosmopolitan dining?

Margie said...

As a Chicagoan transplanted to Racine, I've had the opposite experience. Maybe I'm not trying the right places. Where is this hole-in-the-wall place for good Chinese food in Racine?

emme said...

hey -- interesting analysis. randomly came across your blog, and agreed with your principles so strongly, i decided to backtrack and read some archives! i am a transplanted chicagoan, lived in nyc for the past 5 years, philadelphia for 4 years before that, and now living abroad. however i also am an asian immigrant (came over at the age of 3), and am probably one of the aforementioned rogers park asians! there is one thing i must point out that your analysis seems to assume -- that each restaurant is a purely culinary endeavor, started or run by a professional cook, hoping to show his/her talents. and yes, while a restaurant needs to at least perform at 'flavorful levels', as in mainstream american cuisine, a restaurant can financially survive on merely being tasty, or even comforting in a non healthy way (aka greasy spoons etc). i think you need to consider the actual business patterns behind the establishment of said restaurants, as in the role of overarching small business coalitions etc. in the same way the nyc "chinatown express" buses are run by the chinese mafia, and arent known for service quality but rather frugality and efficiency -- maybe the myriad mediocre chinese restaurants in urban areas sprout from similar endeavors by the mafia, or other groups, who are merely trying to make a profit, and employ workers who CAN cook, vs real chefs. and hence the food quality isn't quite as good? just an idea...

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