White “foodie” types look for authenticity in our dining experiences. Of course, authenticity is a tricky concept, because at no point does the “authentic” food of a culture remain static. When technology changes, when certain crops wither or flourish, when trade and importation patterns shift, the food of a region changes more or less organically.
When people emigrate to a new society, this process – the evolution of a culture’s “authentic” cuisine – occurs even more dramatically. For instance, the reason for the rich, sweet, heavy sauces you can find in most Chinese-American restaurants isn’t pandering to American tastebuds – or at least, not just pandering to American tastebuds. When Chinese immigrants found themselves cooking in a country where ingredients like sugar were cheap and readily available, they eagerly integrated those foods into their recipes, as well as creating new dishes to showcase them.
Some forces do legitimately threaten a culture’s cuisine. One that springs to mind would be colonialism, which can easily impact what food people eat. During the Spanish occupation of the Taínos, indigenous crops like maize became known as inferior to European foods such as wheat. In addition, land and resources for farming were quickly taken up by the colonists’ crops, leaving nothing left for native seeds. These days, we worry more about cultural colonialism: the exporting of American tastes and food products around the world with every new McDonalds that opens overseas.
Another threat to authentic regional cuisine is the increasing crop monoculture that has resulted from American quantity-over-quality and consistency-valuing farming practices. I believe problems like these do negatively affect the development of a culture’s food.
However, that food also does evolve on its own, and that process is to some degree natural and unavoidable. If “authenticity” means rejecting technological or ingredient changes, then how far back must we look to find the truly “authentic” dishes? Is the discovery of fire far enough, or was roasting or boiling meat and other local ingredients a perversion of the original dish’s purity?
Like most social constructs, “[cultural] authenticity” is fascinating to ponder, and it could (and does) literally have books written about it and, probably, courses taught deconstructing it. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.
For me, flippancy and irreverence over the concept of “authenticity” in cuisine is, today, just an excuse that allows me to love the Chinese American buffet.
If I had to describe a Chinese buffet – at least, the ones I grew up with and the one that I regularly visit with my friend today – to an alien or a European, I would probably say, “Imagine if someone decided to set up a restaurant where you could get takeout food, along with some of the worst American foods, and all the diners could eat as much as they wanted.” Chinese buffets are such a wonderful expression of the “ugly American eater” stereotype that for me, they’re almost like a meme – or more accurately, when you post a meme and the butt of the joke, ideally some corporation or public authority figure, tries to either respond or use the meme themselves. The result is just such a spectacle of beautiful irony and uncoolness that you want to frame it on your wall, or at least cut it out and stick it on your refrigerator along with that one particularly surreal old Far Side cartoon.
But I realize that with this introduction to Chinese buffets, I’m suggesting that my love for them is also detached and ironic. I cannot tell a lie – that is not the case. I love Chinese buffets, partly because I love “Americanized” Chinese food; partly because for all my foodiness, I love food that is familiar to me; and partly because, candidly, I love buffets, and any social context that allows me to eat without judgment.
What you should understand about me, without wanting to spoil anyone’s mood, is this: I’m a survivor of many medical situations in which I had to fast, or was on a restricted diet for blood glucose or liver-related reasons. I was a teenage type 1 diabetic whose endocrinologist believed that weight loss (in the midst of adolescence and all its body changes?) was somehow key to my health (it wasn’t, and actually had consequences for my mental health). Maybe this is why my shameful food secret has arisen: I love places where I can just eat – whatever food combinations I want, as much as I want – free of judgment or scrutiny. This is a quintessential American desire, I think, starting in the 1950’s but ultimately passed down from the days of the Great Depression, and then the rationing of World War II: white and/or bourgeois America’s desire to drown our sorrows and traumas in excess.
When you go into a Chinese buffet, you know what to expect. The food is the kind of food you order, not to be “adventurous,” but because you are hungry or tired or drunk or stoned, and you just want to eat. Dumplings, egg rolls, noodles, and pieces of chicken, pork, beef, and sometimes shrimp in sweet sauces over rice. White rice or fried rice, that is (I’ve never seen brown).
But as you progress down the buffet, you may also find food that seems to fit less and less into its surroundings, like popcorn shrimp, chicken fingers breaded in a thin, smooth, tempura-like thin skin (both are good with the red sweet and sour sauce that’s usually provided); conventional fried chicken on the bone, and French fries. This is another fun thing about the Chinese buffet: if your friends want Chinese food, but you’re abruptly in a fried food mood, or if your tastes change between leaving for the buffet and arriving at the restaurant, you can have what you want.
Dessert is an interesting affair. If you’ve ever been to a Chinese bakery (and I recommend going if you can), you know that Chinese pastries tend not to be overly sweet by American standards, and to take their sweetness from unusual (to most white Americans) ingredients. Egg tarts and sesame seed covered- or sweet bean paste-filled cakes are delicious, but their relative unfamiliarity to, say, the people in my upstate and suburban hometown, means that they defy the purpose of the Chinese buffet.
As a result, the dessert table of the Chinese buffet – and there will usually be a dessert table – is, well…interesting. There is typically cut fruit and Jell-O cubes, which I appreciate since that’s usually the type of sweet flavor I crave after most of the Chinese, Korean, or Japanese dishes I’ve had, as opposed to anything heavier or richer. But there is also often a very syrupy flan, maybe a bowl or two of pudding, some miniature cream puffs and eclairs, a soft-serve ice cream machine humming off to one side, almond cookies, and for some reason, clean but unshelled raw shrimp on ice. This isn’t even mentioning other sweets that you might find placed alongside the entrees – at the buffet where I go, there are lightly sugared donuts in a warming pan on the main buffet, typically close to something else fried like egg rolls or crab rangoons.
I was too lazy when I wrote this post to delve more deeply into the history of the Chinese American buffet, but I may post about that another time, when I have the spoons to actually plan out posts instead of just letting myself loose on a Google Doc between phone calls at work. If my tone or my take on this was racist, and you have the emotional energy available to educate me, that would be great. Otherwise, my advice is to try a Chinese buffet, and if you’re visiting the US from outside it, definitely go to one. It’s a fascinating fusion of food desires and cultures to me.