Family traditions often get started by accident—especially, perhaps, those that center on food. On the second New Year’s Eve after we were married, my wife and I found ourselves trapped in our apartment in Vienna, Virginia, victims of a freak snow and ice storm that made the Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., streets downright dangerous, especially since no one in the area knew how to drive in such conditions. While we both had weathered far worse growing up in Michigan, we decided not to risk our lives but someone else’s, and so we ordered Chinese delivery. (To salve our consciences, we tipped very well.) At the end of the meal, one of us conceived the sappy idea of breaking our fortune cookies open at midnight, and by 12:01 A.M. (disappointing fortunes notwithstanding), it was probably inevitable that we would do it all again the next year.
And so, when we arrived in Rockford two years later, on December 27, 1995, one of my first tasks was to locate a Chinese restaurant. In a dingy strip mall on North Main Street, around the corner from our apartment, I found a little hole in the wall with six or seven tables. I guess it will do, I thought. By next year, we’ll have located the best Chinese restaurant in town. Little did I know that we already had.
The food we ate that New Year’s Eve—crab rangoon, fried rice, and black bean and garlic chicken with green peppers and onions—was not the best Chinese I have ever had, but few restaurants I have dined at have ever topped it (most notably, a Chinese restaurant on Long Island whose name I can’t recall, where I first enjoyed General Tso’s chicken—delightfully crunchy-chewy, with fiery little peppers and the lightest of sauces—and my personal favorite, the Sichuan Pavilion, on K Street in Washington, D.C.). Over the next five or so years, I enjoyed innumerable lunches and dinners with family and colleagues at the place we all came to know simply as “Mrs. Lee’s”—Lee’s Chinese Restaurant, immortalized in the small ads that we placed in Chronicles as a token of our gratitude for the many kindnesses that Mrs. Lee and her husband, Al, bestowed upon us.
A decade earlier, Tom Fleming had also eaten one of his first meals in Rockford at Mrs. Lee’s, when Chronicles’ founding editor Leopold Tyrmand took him there to sample the wonton soup—the best in Rockford, Tyrmand claimed. And it was, though I always preferred the hot and sour. (If you’re ever in D.C., try the best of both worlds: Sichuan Pavilion’s hot and sour wonton soup, a sublime—and spicy—dish I have never seen anywhere else.) My children always said that no one could make white rice quite like Mrs. Lee—whose real name was Ann Wang and whose unrelenting cheerfulness and good nature are reflected in the fact that it took her almost five years to correct us.
In mid-size Midwestern towns such as Rockford, small ethnic restaurants come and go, which made Mrs. Lee’s 20-some-year run little short of a miracle. While such places might survive for generations in New York City or San Francisco, the normal pattern here is for small restaurants (often run by first- or second-generation immigrants) to blaze the way, introducing adventurous Midwesterners to an interesting new cuisine, which is then picked up by a larger restaurant (often a chain), which ditches all of the sparkle and originality of the cuisine in order to make it more palatable to a broader range of American diners. And, of course, it never hurts to make up for the loss of quality by increasing the quantity, preferably by putting the food on an all-you-can-eat buffet. (Rockford now has a Chinese-Japanese-American buffet featuring sushi—a risky proposition if ever there was one. Nine eighty-nine, no doggie bags—something for which Rover can be thankful.)
This dynamic is more proof that, to the extent that any assimilation has actually occurred in the “Great Melting Pot,” it has largely been destructive, stripping immigrants and their food of their distinctiveness and reducing them to the lowest common denominator. If there were still a true American cuisine, it could adopt the best foods and techniques and spices from other cultures and make them its own, the way that, say, Poles, Lebanese, and Vietnamese did with French cuisine. Instead, American chain restaurants and agribusiness conglomerates take other cultures’ food and try to make it taste like a TV dinner. And, unfortunately, they usually succeed.
Mrs. Lee’s has been gone for almost two years now, and with it not only the crab rangoon, wonton soup, and beef kow but Mrs. Lee’s insights into the local public schools and the mayor and her tips about Brazilian telephone stocks. Ann and Al were not forced out of business by their competition but chose to retire rather than battle their landlord, who wanted them to make thousands of dollars worth of improvements to their space before he would offer them another lease. The forces of homogenization, however, were closing in—a local Chinese restaurant chain, predictably named “Happy Wok,” had opened on the corner, and a Chinese buffet, predictably named “China Buffet” and featuring such traditional Asian dishes as frozen pizza and boxed mashed potatoes with canned gravy, had taken up residence in the next mall to the north. Still, I’d like to think that Mrs. Lee could have withstood the competition, perhaps less because of the quality of her food than the loyalty of her patrons and her loyalty to them—though, in the end, “the quality of her food” and “her loyalty to her patrons” may simply be different ways of saying the same thing.