Serving up a Plate of CommunityBy Gil Asakawa - published 29-Mar-2004
Everybody loves Chinese food. Or at least, Chinese-American food. Erin and I tend to be food fanatics and we love Chinese Chinese food - the stuff that's usually available on a Chinese menu. Thank goodness there are restaurants that print their "Chinese" menu in English, so we don't have to dine with a Chinese-speaking friend!
The assembly line for the Dinner starts with a scoop of tasty, gloppy chow mein.
I've heard that such common staples of Chinese restaurants as chop suey and chow mein aren't actually Chinese in origin.
Some people think these dishes were created when an inventive Chinese chef in the 19th century found himself having to fashion a meal out of leftovers and scraps (the stories either say he was cooking for a Chinese diplomat in Washington, D.C. or a group of hungry immigrant miners out west), and came up with chop suey. But other sources cite earlier references to something called "chop suey" in China, which was the same idea, a jumble of leftovers.
The Japanese have a similar sort of traditional comfort food called "okazu," which is made from leftover meat and vegetables and served with rice.
But "authentic" is in the tastebuds of the beholder, and Americanized or now, we're big fans of Chinese food. Besides, we can't escape the cuisine. Chinese food is deeply rooted in our experience as Japanese Americans.
I don't remember eating at Chinese restaurants in Japan, unless you count ramen shops. ("Ramen" is Japanese for "lo mein," Chinese noodles, and though ramen is considered a Japanese dish by college students the world over, it's Chinese. Japanese noodles are the fat udon and the fragile buckwheat soba.)
But dining out Chinese was a big deal for the family once we moved to the States. There were two restaurants in Lakewood, the Denver suburb where moved when I was in high school, that we regularly went to. One is still there, though I can't imagine it has the same owners after several decades. I didn't think at the time about whether the food was authentic or not at these restaurants.
Little did I know that while our family sought out little Chinese restaurants, there was a tradition of Chinese food that was celebrated by the Japanese American community around us.
Chinese restaurants have always served as the gathering place for JA events. I'm no food anthropologist, but my guess is that even the earliest Japanese immigrants went to Chinese restaurants because Chinese cuisine tends to be easy to cook and easy to serve in bulk. Unlike Japanese food, which can sometimes be painstaking in both preparation and presentation, Chinese cuisine was comfort food, cooked up for the masses.
Even today, there are many more large Chinese restaurants in most cities that are capable of hosting large events and groups, than Japanese eateries. Every year, when organizations such as the Japanese Association in Denver meets for their big fundraising dinner, or various JA groups hold their Chinese New Year events, they invariably hold it in one of several large local Chinese restaurants.
Erin grew up with an even more distinct Japanese American/Chinese American link.
Her family for years attended the annual Chow Mein Dinners sponsored by the Brighton Japanese American Association. Although I'd seen posters for the dinners in recent years, I had never gone, and my family never went when I was young.
This year, Erin and I went to the Adams County Fairground so I could see what the Chow Mein Dinner is all about.
The Fairground is just outside of Brighton, the farming community about half an hour northeast of Denver. Even from the pre-war decades, the area north of Denver, including small towns such as Fort Lupton and larger towns such as Greeley, has always had a concentration of Japanese farm families. These families come down to Denver's Sakura Square for their Japanese groceries, but there's a Buddhist church in Brighton, and the Brighton Japanese American Association was formed in 1957 as a way for the community to connect with each other.
In the early 1960s, the Brighton JAA began cooking up Chow Mein as a way to raise money for local civic projects. The money raised by the annual event goes to homeless shelters, low income housing and various other Adams County charities, and the annual scholarship given by the Brighton JAA as part of the Japanese American Community Graduation Program.
In the decades since then, says Stan Shibao, the current president of the Brighton JAA, the Chow Mein Dinner was cancelled only twice, when the JAA membership was in flux with the passing of the older Issei immigrants and the coming of age of the younger generations. Those two years, he told me, there were complaints throughout Brighton because the community had become so accustomed to the springtime serving of chow mein.
Chow mein is one of those Americanized Chinese dishes; the words simply mean "fried noodles" and the dish is characterized by the crispy chow mein noodles sprinkled on top of meat and vegetables story-fried with a gravy. It's definitely comfort food. But I had no idea how many people sought comfort from chow mein in Brighton.
Erin and I arrived at the Fairground late in the day and missed the popular bake sale (She remembers the homemade pastries and pies as a highlight from her childhood, and they still must be, because we heard there were lines forming before opening for people who wanted to buy the baked goods). But there were plenty of chow mein plates and sushi (each meal cost $8).
The plates were nothing super fancy - a scoop of Chow Mein (bits of ground pork cooked with diced celery, bean sprouts and other veggies), accompanied by rice (of course), a couple of pieces of shrimp tempura served with a dollop of cocktail sauce, and a side of cole slaw - but it was satisfying, especially with a few pieces of the norimaki and inari sushi.
Earlier in the day, the large round dining room, which must hold several hundred diners, was packed. By the end of the afternoon, the volunteers were debating whether or not to cook up more chow mein in the kitchen, but by then they had already served almost 3,000 meals -- a mountain of chow. Congratulations to the Brighton JAA for bridging cultures, bringing people together over food, and raising money for good causes.
Not everyone ate there. In fact, it seemed as if most people, including us, bought some dinners to go, served in Styrofoam containers and carried around in white plastic bags. Almost everyone who left the building was weighed down with these plastic bags, filled with three or four styrofoam containers each.
And most amazingly for me, a majority of the diners were not Japanese, but Caucasian. It looked like entire families of ranchers and farmers were there, most using chopsticks, having their annual fix of Chow Mein.
I wondered if these non-Japanese knew that Chow Mein was a Chinese dish, then I thought what the hell, it doesn't matter. Besides, it's a Chinese American dish. And once a year in Brighton, Colorado, it's a Japanese American dish.
So much for authentic cuisine - just pass me the chopsticks!