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I recently delved into the museum’s newly acquired menu collection. My focus was a sub-set of the collection: the Chinese menus, which span nearly three decades and come from all over the United States. I was curious to see what the menus could reveal about the history of Chinese food in America. As I perused the collection, I realized that Chinese restaurants don’t simply sell food—they also sell a cultural experience, à la carte.
Historically, many Americans first encountered Chinese cuisine while laboring in mines or on railroads, where Chinese immigrants often worked as cooks. By the late 19th century, increasing numbers of Americans were venturing into Chinatowns in both New York and San Francisco, in search of cheap, tasty meals. Others were drawn to Chinatown for different reasons: Bohemians saw Chinese dining as a sensual and exotic experience, and wealthier patrons sought high-end culinary adventures. Originally established to serve fellow expats, Chinese proprietors saw their business grow as more American customers frequented their establishments.