A 3-page Paper about ethnic food


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The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity: Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment Author(s): Shun Lu and Gary Alan Fine Source: The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Summer, 1995), pp. 535-553 Published by: on behalf of the Wiley Midwest Sociological Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4120779 Accessed: 24-04-2015 22:32 UTC

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THE PRESENTATION OF ETHNIC AUTHENTICITY: Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment

Shun Lu*

Gary Alan Fine University of Georgia

Ethnic entrepreneurs in American society often carve out an economic niche by means of business enterprises and cultural events that are open to the general public and showcase ethnic culture. These locations depend upon a display of the ethnic culture that is simulta- neously seen as "authentic" and within the bounds of cultural expectations ("American- ized"). In a society that values toleration and cross-cultural contacts, many consumers desire a unique, yet comfortable experience, given their own cultural preferences. We focus on the presentation of ethnic food in four Chinese restaurants in a small southern city. Ethnic tradition continues but in the context of a continuous process of adaptation. Authen- ticity is not an objective criterion but is socially constructed and linked to expectations. We contrast two broad classes of Chinese restaurants--consumption-oriented and connoisseur- oriented-to describe strategies by which restaurateurs fit Chinese food into market niches. We conclude by suggesting some directions for the study of public ethnic culture.

In contemporary American society, ethnicity is revealed as much by symbolism through public display as by any other factor. While the display of ethnicity does not eliminate its social psychological power to affect self-image, much ethnicity is made real through cultural transactions: a viable ethnic identity depends on a set of symbols and signs, products of inter- action with other groups (Royce 1982, p. 6; Gans 1979; Van den Berghe 1984, pp. 393-394; Isajiw 1990, p. 87). At least in the American context, ethnic identity is socially constructed and depends on a set of consistent actions that permits others to place an individual in an ethnic category (Alba 1990, p. 75). This is the case even when such cultural placement does not do justice to the complex and multistranded lived experiences of contemporary "ethnic" actors whose ethnic experiences are continually shaped (through acquiescence or resistance) by the responses of members of the societies in which the ethnic group is embedded (Chow 1993, p. 6; Denzin 1994, pp. 76-77). This process is in actuality quite fluid and negotiated.

The understanding of the dynamics of "ethnicity" is bolstered through an approach that emphasizes the transactions between the "ethnic group" and its public. Significantly, many of the transactions by which ethnicity is made "real" are economically grounded: festivals, res- taurants, art galleries, clothing outlets, and musical venues. Ethnicity often becomes a market- ing tool, part of an entrepreneurial market.

We aim to advance the sociological understanding of publicly displayed ethnicity, accultur- ations and cultural pluralism by examining a set of mercantile strategies-specifically, the

*Direct all correspondence to Shun Lu and Gary Alan Fine, Department of Sociology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602.

The Sociological Quarterly, Volume 36, Number 3, pages 535-553. Copyright ? 1995 by The Midwest Sociological Society. All rights of reproduction in any form requested. ISSN: 0038-0253.

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preparation and sale of Chinese food to American diners.' We examine the choices of food preparation and presentation of restaurateurs whose client base consists largely of those outside the ethnic group.2

We ask how ethnic food, as a readily recognized marker of ethnicity and as a major form of traditional culture (Goode, Curtis, and Theophano, 1984; Alba 1990, pp. 85-93) is produced and marketed in contemporary American society. How do Chinese restaurant owners make their food appealing to those outside their ethnic group? We examine the constructs of authen- ticity and Americanization as contrasting strategies to create an economically viable market niche. More generally, we explore the dialectic relationship between the continuity of tradition and the continuous process of change found in the presentation of "traditional" activities. For clients outside the ethnic group, novel culinary traditions must be situated so as to seem simul- taneously exotic and familiar: distinguishable from mainstream cuisine (and thus desirable) yet able to be assimilated as edible creations (Finkelstein 1989).

In contrast to many ethnic businesses, Chinese restaurants rely primarily on an external rather than an internal market (Aldrich and Waldinger 1990; Light and Bonacich 1988). Own- ers are "cultural entrepreneurs," who use their ethnicity as a "vital part of [their] stock in trade" (Palmer 1984, p. 85). Their strategies permit clients to believe that they have had an "exotic encounter," while keeping the experience within the boundaries of cultural expecta- tions-strategies also found in the tourist industry and public festivals (Chace 1992). Ethnic businesses can succeed by providing desired "exotic goods" and opportunities for "internal tourism" (Van den Berghe 1984, p. 393) that other organizations cannot provide as cheaply or as authentically (Aldrich and Waldinger 1990, p. 117). The scarcity of the experience contrib- utes to its marketability (Palmer 1984).

The members of the group recognize that their traditional culture is being altered, but si- multaneously they believe that they are educating their clients to understand their culture. Ethnic food both attempts to fit the market (demand producing supply), while altering that market over time (supply producing demand). As suggested by Frederik Barth (1969), the question is how much change in a cultural tradition is possible before we claim that the cul- tural tradition no longer characterizes the ethnic group from which it is supposedly derived.


The ethnic restaurant serves as a propitious setting for observing public ethnicity and the dynamics of culinary adaptation in contemporary American life. Typically, the examination of foodways has been in the context of domestic life. Yet ethnic restaurants, as a locus for the interaction between food production and consumption, provide a significant and unexplored organizational arena for depicting the conflict between continuity and change of an ethnic tradition in a market context. How does symbolism become solidified in economic life (Denzin 1977)? Ethnic dining plays a prominent role in modern American life (Konvitz 1975), particularly as approximately half of the meals eaten by Americans are consumed outside the home.3 Moreover, Americans enjoy "gastronomic tourism" (Zelinsky 1985, p. 51).

The Chinese restaurant has become a nearly ubiquitous feature of American urban and suburban life (Levenstein 1993).4 It has been estimated that there are now over 30,000 Chi- nese restaurants in the United States,s accounting for nearly a third of all "ethnic restaurants" (Zelinsky 1985, p. 60), with revenues of $9 billion (Karnow 1994, p. 87). Such figures are particularly remarkable in that Americans of Chinese descent represent less than one percent of the population.

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The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity 537

Chinese restaurants serve as a model for the examination of ethnic dining.6 Chinese food is one of the most popular and sophisticated cuisines in the world and enjoys a long and distinc- tive tradition. In addition, the success of Chinese restaurants provides a valuable case of the

growth and institutionalization of an "alien" culture. Chinese food has been regarded as "a taste of success" (Epstein 1993), as the cuisine has become widely accepted. Chinese restau- rants in the past few decades have increasingly become differentiated according to region, cuisine, and audience, ranging from run-down storefronts to elaborate temples of culinary extravagance. Indeed, Chinese restaurants are now found throughout the American landscape, even in small towns and rural areas.

We describe the food preparation strategies of four Chinese restaurants (China Fast-Food Restaurant, China Boat, Guangdong, and Sichuan) in Athens, Georgia, the home of the Uni-

versity of Georgia. Athens has a population of 80,000 and is located about sixty miles north- east of Atlanta. Shun Lu conducted participant observation from April to August of 1992, observing food preparation, cooking, and serving. She also conducted 26 interviews with owners, cooks, and customers. Each interview lasted from one to three hours.

The University, with nearly 30,000 students in addition to its faculty and staff, provides a

large proportion of potential customers for local restaurants. Approximately four hundred Chi- nese students attend the university (largely graduate students), half from the mainland and half from Taiwan, constituting 1.4 percent of the total student population. These students, on a

tight graduate student budget, typically prepare meals at home rather than eat at restaurants, and eat at Chinese restaurants less frequently than American students.

Eight Chinese restaurants operate in Athens. Sichuan Restaurant is the oldest one currently in operation, having opened twenty years ago. By contrast, China Boat opened three years ago; China Fast-Food Restaurant has been open for seven years; and Guangdong for eight years. The backgrounds of the owners are characteristic of Chinese who have immigrated since the 1960s-most either have a college degree or had professional experience before they entered the restaurant business: the owners of Guangdong are graduates of the University of

Georgia (the male owner is a professor); the owners of China Fast-Food Restaurant are col-

lege graduates from Taiwan; the male owner of China Boat used to be a university professor in mainland China and has a doctorate from the University of Georgia. Servers in these restau- rants are either university students who work part-time or students' spouses who work full- time but often are preparing to enter a graduate program once they have earned sufficient income for tuition and living expenses. The cooks are professionals, trained at various Chi- nese restaurants. The presence of a well-educated staff is a distinctive characteristic of many Chinese restaurants.

Unlike many older immigrants who live in an urban Chinatown, the Chinese in Athens do not form a closed ethnic community. They do not rely on mutual help and support from other Chinese for survival and success. Thus, social ties between Chinese immigrants are looser than those found in a traditional Chinatown. The existence of these restaurants reflects a

changing settlement pattern by Chinese immigrants outside tight-knit ethnic enclaves. These Chinese immigrants, unlike their forbears, rely less on their relatives and are less bound by "blood and land ties" (Light 1972). They are career-oriented and settle in places where they perceive economic opportunities.

In addition, their attitude toward their cultural heritage differ from the assimilation-oriented immigrants' children. The owners are American citizens but believe that they are still Chi- nese. In other words, they maintain a strong sense of Chinese identity, despite their economic

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assimilation. They do not consider these elements-maintenance of cultural tradition and par- ticipation in a nonethnic market-as irreconcilable (Wang 1991).7

Ethnic restaurants outside a major metropolitan area survive by appealing to an exogenous client base. Even though university communities are more cosmopolitan than many small southern cities, they lack a sufficient Chinese and Chinese American clientele for economic survival. Chinese restaurants surrounded by mainstream American culture necessarily interact primarily with a "European-American" environment as compared to restaurants located in "Chinatown." The reality that more Americans than Chinese are potential customers and that no closed Chinese community exists suggests that the eating habits and cultural images of Americans will take priority in organizational strategies.


A prominent feature of much ethnic food in contemporary America is that the ethnic "purity" of the food has been diluted (Alba 1990, p. 86). As in all cases of cultural diffusion, adjust- ments are made to accommodate the values of the host society. Yet, degrees of Americaniza- tion vary by restaurant and by cuisine. By Americanization we refer to the conscious decision of restaurateurs to transform ingredients and techniques of traditional recipes (Tomlinson 1986) to meet American tastes.8 What constitutes Americanized food is a social construction, as is what constitutes Chinese food. Despite the changes, food is often presented by the ethnic restaurant as being "authentic"-for many consumers, a socially desirable image in a compet- itive and differentiated market. This is not a phenomenon specific only to Chinese restau- rants-signs proclaim "authentic Italian food" or "authentic Mexican food," despite market- based adaptations of these cuisines. Authenticity is typically defined as being that which is believed or accepted to be genuine or real: true to itself (Taylor 1991, p. 17). Authentic food implies that products are prepared using the same ingredients and processes as found in the homeland of the ethnic, national, or regional group. Americanized ethnic food suggests that the local and traditional characteristics of the dish as indigenously prepared have been modi- fied or transformed. In this "moral" sense, the food does not deserve the label of being authentic.

Authenticity as an objective category has become increasingly criticized by cultural ana- lysts (e.g., Bendix 1992) who claim that authenticity is a discursive strategy for sociopolitical ends (Berman 1970; Taylor 1991) and that, at best, it is a matter of degree. Authenticity is a locally constructed folk idea, and those objects that are said to represent authentic experience may become a site of contention. Just as tradition is mutable and contingent (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1984; Fine 1989), so is authenticity. Within a culture, different acceptable models exist for the same practice.

Contributing to the contingent nature of authenticity is that the culture of any social group is in continual flux. Cultures are never entirely closed systems: external changes affect cul- tural logics. Nowhere is this more evident than with regard to cuisine. From generation to generation, some culinary preparations and foodways absorb features of "alien" foods-per- haps a function of biological succession of foodstuffs, migration, technological change, shortages, or alterations in food-related ideologies (e.g., increased negative attitudes toward red meats, sugar, fat, or animal products; increased positive attitudes toward fish, turkey, or leafy greens). The vitality of a culinary system depends on its adaptability and flexibility. The maintenance of a food pattern does not depend on whether it is identical with an original model but on whether the "fundamental" characteristics of the food are defined as being con-

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The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity 539

tinuously present, connected to core cultural beliefs, and recognized as a differentiated food pattern.

The practice of presenting Americanized ethnic food as authentic raises significant socio- logical questions about the presentation of ethnicity in the marketplace. Specifically, how is authenticity framed for an audience? How does authenticity affect the dishes presented by a restaurant? How does market segmentation affect models of authenticity?

In "Staged Authenticity," Dean MacCannell (1973; see also 1976) argues that many sight- seers are motivated by a desire to see the life of natives as it is really lived, a desire for truth, intimacy, and sharing the lived experience behind the performed scenes. The touristic (voyeuristic) gaze is only one example of the desire for authenticity in contemporary Ameri- can life. Motivated by the same desire, a search for authentic experience is also found in Americans' interest in ethnic foods (Finkelstein 1989; Shelton 1990). If tourists' search for authenticity is reflected by their concern for fabricated scenes, their dislike of the mundane, and their preference for the exotic, many diners feel that the culinary authenticity of ethnic food allows them to experience and perhaps identify with the "true foreignness" of the ethnic group: eating out becomes food for the "soul" (Pillsbury 1990)-a form of identity work (Snow and Anderson 1987). Through the consumption of ethnic cuisine we demonstrate to ourselves and others that we are cosmopolitan and tolerant: our character is expressed through our behavior in the market. In this sense, the clich&--"you are what you eat"-has sociologi- cal validity. The construction of authentic food responds to American's quest for authentic experience and identity transformation (Gergen 1991).

Due to the sensory characteristics of food and dining, demands for authenticity and the actual, more conventional practices of most diners diverge. Our proclaimed identity may di- verge from our comfort level. In other words, a discrepancy exists between ideal and accept- ance, even when diners are unaware of the contradiction in their desires. The seemingly contradictory requirements of ethnic food-ideally, it should be authentic; practically, it should be Americanized-make it necessary for the restaurant to construct both the meaning of authentic food and a market niche, in the process creating an image of their cultural tradi- tions for their customers, as they create images of their customers. As a result, the naming practices of owners of Chinese restaurants-Jade Lion, Lotus Flower, Sichuan Gardens, Pearl River-are strategies designed to reinforce the desire of diners for exotic experience (Karnow 1994, p. 87) and to generate an exotic hyperreality.

In the literature on ethnicity, ethnic food is typically located within families and ethnic communities. Many social scientists expected that distinctive foodways would weaken or dis- appear with increasing assimilation and acculturation (Freeman and Grivetti 1981; Jerome 1975). In fact, later generations of immigrants tend in some measure to discard the eating habits of their parents or grandparents and adopt the standard American diet, saving their ethnic cuisine for special occasions (e.g., Brown and Mussell 1984). The survival and modifi- cation of ethnic culture in public life is made possible largely through the continuity of ethnic food in restaurants and fast-food establishments. While this contrasts with a purist belief in authentic ethnic experience, it generates a dialectic between assimilation and cultural plural- ism (Alba 1985; Glazer and Moynihan 1963; Newman 1973).


When asked, many Chinese customers comment-not surprisingly-that the food served in Chinese restaurants in Athens differs from the food they ate in their homeland. These restau-

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rants serve "Americanized Chinese food" (Yancey 1992). Given the alien environment, is it possible to serve authentic Chinese food to American diners? Each owner and cook inter- viewed answered in the negative.

While American customers explained that they selected Chinese food for its difference from American cuisine-its otherness-this display of otherness had to remain within the context of American foodstuffs and presentation. Exoticism was a concept that was not abso- lute but related to the standards of the American palate. The owner of Sichuan Restaurant opined:

When we opened the first Chinese restaurant here eighteen years ago many customers had never eaten any Chinese food. They were attracted by the reputation of the food, but they would have been disappointed if we had served all those kinds of authentic food. We have made changes according to their taste. They could not accept our food all of a sudden. But bit by bit they accepted our tofu, our dishes cooked with green onion and ginger, and even the hot and spicy dishes. I say, only bit by bit. We must make some changes.

The presentation of authentic Chinese food is prevented by social, cultural, and economic constraints of the market, coupled with the perceptions of those constraints. In our interviews and in their talk with restaurant owners, American customers did not complain about the lack of authenticity of the food and may have been unaware of alterations that would have been obvious to a Chinese diner. The food fit the definition of exotic cuisine and was accepted as such. Ethnic food can only be accepted by adapting it into a cultural matrix and by creating a set of culinary expectations. In most settings, such a process is gradual. While we cannot know the reaction of local diners to such delicacies as wax gourd and duck feet, the segmenta- tion of Chinese restaurant markets in larger urban areas with relatively more exotic restaurants located in "Chinatowns" and areas of cultural and artistic capital and more "Americanized" Chinese restaurants in suburbs and working-class neighborhoods suggests that the meaning of appropriate Chinese food is locally constructed. Cultural segments use local criteria for judg- ing foods, limiting the acceptance of cultural traditions.

Ultimately, the meanings of food depend on the social location of those who consume it. A prized dish in one culture may be rejected in another due to different habits and beliefs and different degrees of culinary adventurousness or appreciation of sensory domains, all related to the habitus of the diner (Bourdieu 1984). For example, while "steamed fish" is a traditional and frequently ordered dish in restaurants in China, it is absent from the menus of all but a few Chinese restaurants in the United States. The owner of Sichuan explains:

The steamed fish relies less on the enhancement of spices than other dishes and has a high requirement on the freshness of the raw material; ideally, it should be alive. Chinese enjoy the original flavor of the fish and a Chinese gourmet takes the fish's head and tail as the most delicious parts. But Americans do not like to eat fish with head and bones; they like fillet. Besides, they like food with a stronger flavor; the steamed fish is too light-flavored and too fishy for them. They do not care for the original flavor. That's why we do not include it in our menu.

In addition, the tendons of beef or pork and beef tripe are two favorite dishes in Chinese restaurants on the mainland and in Taiwan. Other dishes using inner organs or extremities of

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The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity 541

animals, such as ox's tail, pig's tongue, and duck's feet, are very popular. Chinese preferences for dishes of this kind are closely connected to their belief system. They consider these dishes delicious as well as nutritious, connected to a Taoist belief in the unity of the human body (Rin 1982). In contrast, Americans define internal organs as dirty, of unpleasant texture, and unhealthy. The production of authenticity is constrained by aesthetic standards, linked to cul- tural discourse about health and cleanliness.

Economic reality also constrains authenticity. Ethnic restaurants operate within a highly competitive capitalist free market (Fine forthcoming). In order to survive, a restaurant must minimize its fixed, labor, and material costs, while charging enough for what they serve, in order to make a profit. In doing this the restaurant must balance the cost and quality of their dishes to maintain a steady and dependable clientele. If the food does not appeal to the cus- tomers and does not sell, the restaurateur cannot afford to wait for the customers to change their attitudes.

The restaurant owner who wished to cook food as served in mainland China would confront a problem of the costs of authentic raw materials. All four restaurants, in spite of their differ- ences in orientation (discussed below), use "American vegetables"--carrots, snow peas, green peppers, broccoli, and mushrooms. These vegetables are locally available and preferred by American customers. In contrast, these restaurants avoid authentic Chinese vegetables. Some frequently used vegetables in China such as fresh bamboo shoots, hotbed chives, garlic bolt, and wax gourd are difficult to obtain. Although some are available in Atlanta, they are more expensive than local American vegetables and are less acceptable to American diners. Since the acceptance of Chinese items cannot happen "at once," it is not wise for the restaurant to cook with authentic vegetables even if they are available and cost efficient. When some au- thentic vegetables are both more expensive and more likely to be rejected, owners have little incentive for maintaining their culinary traditions. While some wish to educate the palates of their customers, this process depends upon a change in taste and has an uncertain outcome as the competition may be better able to provide for diners.


Culinary activities are socially constructed. The constraints, while present, are not inevitable. Many customers desire the "illusion of authenticity," which motivates chefs and owners to cook according to tradition, even when bowing to customer preferences. Although constraints cannot be avoided, they can be negotiated. By combining tradition, adaptation, and innova- tion, continuity of an ethnic food tradition is possible, maintaining for the ethnic group a distinctive place in the public arena.

While holding to an illusion of continuity, modification and change are crucial for obtaining culinary acceptance. The strategy of the Chinese restaurateur in modifying the culinary tradi- tion is to make the unfamiliar seem sufficiently comfortable, thus making the exotic qualities of the food pleasurable. Consider two examples: Chow Mein and Mongolian Beef, which are among the entrees most frequently ordered by American customers. They are widely known markers of Chinese food. Both are traditional Chinese dishes but also have been adapted to demands of "American taste," one in the process of cooking and the other in the ingredients.

Chow Mein

In preparing Chow Mein for American tastes, many restaurants alter the process of cooking. Chow Mein in China is made by boiling oriental-style long noodles, then stir-frying the boiled

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