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johnb

Chang and Rockwell Members (Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker)

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The question of the meaning and value of "authenticity" is a really good one, not only in food but in music and everything else worth thinking about. But I hadn't gotten the sense, from discussion here or from the recent magazine articles, that a perception of "authenticity" was really the thing that was making people fanatical about Peter Chang's cooking. Sounds like it was more "oh wow this is delicious" to me.

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The question of the meaning and value of "authenticity" is a really good one...

Or it could be when addressed by a writer with a more sophisticated approach to cultural analysis.

Persepolis was built by Egyptians, Assyrians, etc. Cosmopolitan factors register in design, style and motifs not only due to historical influence (passive) but more significantly, deliberate, authority-grabbing appropriation. But man o man is it "authentically" Persian.

That said, it's about time the spaghetti and meatballitization of regional Chinese cooking be redressed in this country.

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It's a silly argument. That's like saying one should never expand his horizon. If you don't seek what is authentic, how do you know it's not better? Seeking authenticity in this context just means you're willing to explore.

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The Slate piece by Jonah Weiner is based on a false premise. Neither Trillin nor Kliman discuss the authenticity of Peter Chang's cooking. They just say it tastes good.

This is absolutely correct.

In any event, in all my readings on the subject of authenticity, in Chinese or Mexican or any other cuisine, it is clear there is simply no way to define authentic as it applies broadly to cuisine. It's tough enough to try to apply a rigid standard to a particular dish, let alone a whole cuisine. I recently tried to pin down Caesar salad. Even going back to Cesare Cardini doesn't help--he changed his (original) version of the dish over time, and his brother also got into the act; later he brought out a bottled "Caesar Salad Dressing" that is still available at your local grocer--it's pure glop. General Tsao's chicken was originally a great dish, actually, (it was invented in the 50's in Taiwan), but lots of copies have been made that aren't so hot, and have given it a bad rap. Food and dishes and cuisine are constantly evolving. All that matters is quality. Tex Mex isn't "authentic" Mexican, but there certainly can be great Tex Mex dishes. Are they authentic Tex Mex? Who cares.

By the way, I started reading the comments section after the Slate article and nearly doubled up when one of the commentators got Peter Chang confused with P F Chang. How's that authentic P F Chang Chinese food these days? (Only Paul Fleming knows for sure).

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Hi, my name is Stanley. I'm here because I read with great interest the article in the New Yorker by Calvin Trillin entitled "Where'd Chang?" and I then googled "Peter Chang" and came up with this blog.

1. Does anyone know where Peter Chang is nowadays?

2. Does anyone know where Peter Chang would recommend for "Imperial Food" in Beijing and Shanghai?

Thanks.

Stanley

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The Slate article is a bit off base in its premise, in that neither the Trillin article nor the Kliman article focus on "authenticity." And as I noted in my post about my trip to Taste of China, I personally have no idea what authentic Chinese food is or whether Chang's food is authentic. But the article does pose an interesting question: is anybody out there doing good "American Chinese" food? This is the Chinese that most of us grew up on, and probably still love even when it's bad. Are there good versions?

I don't know of any great, or even good American Chinese places in DC (or elsewhere, for that matter), but I have had good versions of some familiar dishes around town. The Source's General Tso's Chicken Wings and Hong Kong Palace's Chengdu Kung Pao Chicken immediately come to mind. What else is out there?

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The Slate piece by Jonah Weiner is based on a false premise. Neither Trillin nor Kliman discuss the authenticity of Peter Chang's cooking. They just say it tastes good.

"In 2005, Binkley and some other serious eaters began patronizing a modestly priced strip-mall restaurant in Fairfax, Virginia called China Star, which, in addition to providing the usual Americanized Chinese staples, seemed capable of producing some remarkable Szechuanese cuisine. They eventually learned that China Star's chef was Peter Chang, who had won national competitions in China and had served as chef at the Chinese embassy." --Calvin Trillin, "Where's Chang?" The New Yorker (March 1, 2010): 26.

"...isn't it more likely that what he can't deal with is not success but the flood of ignorant review-trotters that success brings--people who, radiating delight at being in the new place to be, demand a reduction of spice in a dish that's designed to be spicy or order only the sort of Americanized Chinese dishes that apparently drive Chef Chang to distraction? So could it be that the necessity of cooking inauthentic food is what drives Chef Chang away? But why would someone who dreads cooking anything but authentic Szechuan cuisine move to Knoxville?" Op. cit., 28.

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"In 2005, Binkley and some other serious eaters began patronizing a modestly priced strip-mall restaurant in Fairfax, Virginia called China Star, which, in addition to providing the usual Americanized Chinese staples, seemed capable of producing some remarkable Szechuanese cuisine. They eventually learned that China Star's chef was Peter Chang, who had won national competitions in China and had served as chef at the Chinese embassy." --Calvin Trillin, "Where's Chang?" The New Yorker (March 1, 2010): 26.

"...isn't it more likely that what he can't deal with is not success but the flood of ignorant review-trotters that success brings--people who, radiating delight at being in the new place to be, demand a reduction of spice in a dish that's designed to be spicy or order only the sort of Americanized Chinese dishes that apparently drive Chef Chang to distraction? So could it be that the necessity of cooking inauthentic food is what drives Chef Chang away? But why would someone who dreads cooking anything but authentic Szechuan cuisine move to Knoxville?" Op. cit., 28.

Anna, nice typing. Now let’s read what it says.

Your first quote refers to a contest. There must be variation in any contest, or else everyone would be tied for first. When there is variation, there is individuality. If authenticity were codified, you wouldn't need a chef. So the contest cannot be judged on a rigid notion of authenticity, only on what succeeds, and that is a subjective judgment.

Your second quote refers to a conversation I had with Mr. Trillin in which we were listing various theories to explain Chang’s vagabond behavior. In the passage you cite, Trillin considers the backlash American customer theory, which I offered only half seriously, and, sensibly, dismisses it.

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Anna, nice typing. Now let’s read what it says.

Your first quote refers to a contest. There must be variation in any contest, or else everyone would be tied for first. When there is variation, there is individuality. If authenticity were codified, you wouldn't need a chef. So the contest cannot be judged on a rigid notion of authenticity, only on what succeeds, and that is a subjective judgment.

Your second quote refers to a conversation I had with Mr. Trillin in which we were listing various theories to explain Chang’s vagabond behavior. In the passage you cite, Trillin considers the backlash American customer theory, which I offered only half seriously, and, sensibly, dismisses it.

Please don't patronize in what might be construed in a sexist fashion, though I fully appreciate how my transcription, by identifying evidence that contradicts your assertion, invites a defensive response. I admire your role in this article.

Close reading is what I have been trained to do and have spent years training others to do. I bothered to look to the text for what might have prompted the article in Slate which you and those who agreed with you did not.

I will delete this annoyed response momentarily since neither of us comes off very well in this exchange. ;)

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Most of the time, Chinese restaurants in the U.S. survive on take-out/delivery of Americanized Chinese food - food that while it doesn't take a ton of time to cook, still takes time to prep and clean up afterwards. And the profit margin is low because the typical American will not pay for really good Chinese food. So you're basically forced by economics to spend 7 days a week, 12 hrs a day dishing out slop. Presumably people like the food, otherwise they wouldn't order it, yet it's still food that hardly requires much training to produce. Maybe Chang should look for a job at a high roller Vegas casino where he can charge $40 a plate to a more appreciate audience.

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I will delete this annoyed response momentarily since neither of us comes off very well in this exchange. ;)

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Isn't there some parallel here between Italian, Italian American, and Olive Garden.

Italians in Italy probably won't recognize many Italian American dishes, but Italians immigrated from Italy, adapted to American ingrdients, developed a cusine that borrows from both, and then Olive Graden (and similar chains) step in and create mass produced dumbed down versions.

Many Asians similarly immigrated to America, were forced to adapt to new ingredients, and then along comes PF Changs...

This also works both ways such as the Korean or Hawaiian adaption of Spam in their cooking.

I would argue, that in general, we are not against the cross-pollination of food and food cultures, it's the PF Changs, Olive Gardens, and other purveyors of mediocrity we protest.

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"In 2005, Binkley and some other serious eaters began patronizing a modestly priced strip-mall restaurant in Fairfax, Virginia called China Star, which, in addition to providing the usual Americanized Chinese staples, seemed capable of producing some remarkable Szechuanese cuisine. They eventually learned that China Star's chef was Peter Chang, who had won national competitions in China and had served as chef at the Chinese embassy." --Calvin Trillin, "Where's Chang?" The New Yorker (March 1, 2010): 26.

Briefly reprising my role as "P. Dant" in "High School Musical -1: The Negative Years"...I think this selection goes to credibility, not authenticity.

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Exegesis: My first quote identified a passage wherein Calvin Trillin sets up a dichotomy between "Americanized" and "Szechuanese" cuisine. The first adjective modifying "cuisine" implies that a cuisine was transformed in the Americas, that is, altered, or distanced from that which it originally was. The second adjective seeks to identify the "Ur" cuisine as that of the Szechuan Provence.

The second sentence of that quote leads the reader into the terms of the dichotomy by establishing context. Yes, JP, it is indeed about Chang's credibility, but it also sets him up as someone whose talent has been recognized formally by the Chinese in China and abroad. In fact, he was brought over to this country to represent China's cuisine--distinct from Americanized food. Again, implications. One of Trillin's skills as a writer is to lead one into his story and not to spell everything out.

Not exactly Socratic method, but not unrelated. Note the later reference to "Szechuan Boy" as the name of the restaurant that Chang brings with him. It's a way of reasserting the idea that Peter Chang embodies the cooking of one, particular region of China.

The second quote in my post explicates what was implied in the first sentence. In this thread, DR members claim that neither Trillin nor Kliman discuss authenticity. Since this thread is devoted exclusively to Trillin's article, I merely found that, to the contrary, the piece in The New Yorker uses the words "inauthentic" and "authentic", adjectives derived from the noun "authenticity". Note that these adjectives appear in the same exact order as the words "Americanized" and "Szechuanese" in my first quote. Not the focus of the article, to be sure, but significant nonetheless and certainly worth pursuing and developing as an article in Slate.*

*You Changians are the focus. And Chang.

* * *

Tweaked: exactly! See my post about spaghetti and meatballs above. Look for Kim Severson's article about this issue in The NYTs some years ago, a catalyst for much discussion and argumentation over at a different message board.

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From Todd's chat today:

One more thing ... There was a recent piece in Slate -- on Slate -- that talked about the two pieces, mine and Trillin's, and suggested that what both had in common was a kind of privileging of Chinese food cooked for Chinese over Chinese food cooked for Americans. I can only say that for me, what I was "privileging" was Chinese food cooked by a genius.

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