The theme of today's post: MSM chǎomiàn / Cant. caau2min6 trad. 炒麵 / simpl. 炒面 ("fried noodles").
When I was a wee lad growing up in East Canton (formerly Osnaburg; population about a thousand), Ohio, all that I knew of Chinese food came out of cans, and it was branded either as La Choy or Chun King. The noodles were short, brown, hard, and crunchy, the vegetables were rather tasteless (with mung bean sprouts predominating and plenty of somewhat rubbery sliced mushrooms), all in a mucilaginous matrix of thick, starchy sauce. But it was a lot of fun to prepare and eat because of the way it came in three cans and was so very exotic — not like the daily fare of meat, potatoes, peas, beans, and bread favored by Midwesterners. Oh, and the watery, caramel colored soy sauce was so cloyingly salty.
The only exception was that once a year our Mom would alternate taking one of the seven siblings to the big city of Canton (population about eighty thousand) five miles to the west and would treat us to a Chinese restaurant meal. I think the owners were the only Chinese in the city. The two things that impressed me most were how dark and mysterious the room was in the unmarked, old house where the restaurant was located and how the egg foo young (and I just loved the sound of that name!), which was so much better than the canned chicken chow mein we ate at home, was served to us on a fancy, footed platter with a silver cover. It was always a very special moment when the waiter uncovered the egg foo young and I smelled its extraordinary aroma.
Here's a description of an intrepid foodie preparing and eating today's version of La Choy's Chicken Chow Mein, which is still apparently "available at supermarkets everywhere":
La Choy’s chow mein dinner comes in three separate cans. Following the instructions faithfully I first heated the chicken and gravy mixture from one can in the microwave for two minutes, stirring in between. Right off the bat, the gelatinous concoction began making popping sounds, like it was exploding. While that was going on, I opened the can of vegetables—carrots, water chestnuts, etc.—drained them in a colander, then mixed them in with the chicken and gravy once they were done. This combo gets heated for three minutes, or until hot. Then you sprinkle on the dry noodles, which come in a can of their own.
Digging in, I found the dish unbelievably bland. The vegetables, such as they were, were indistinguishable from each other. The chicken was fairly unrecognizable as chicken, too. The noodles were the best part by far: dark, even burned-looking, deliciously crispy. An hour or so later, alas, I “had to go to the bathroom.” Badly. And, I can’t help thinking it was mainly because of the chow mein feast. Either my constitution is much more delicate than when I was a kid—or La Choy just ain’t no Chun King.
That's from "Bygone Bites: A Review of La Choy’s Chow Mein: Glenn and Carol do a side-by-side critique of these canned fake-Asian noodles. Cue the nostalgia." Carol Shih [and Glenn Hunter], D Magazine (3/4/14)
Here are some interesting facts about La Choy:
The company was founded in 1922 by Dr. Ilhan New (유일한), later founder of Yuhan Corporation in South Korea; and Wally Smith from the University of Michigan. The first product, canned mung bean sprouts, was originally sold in Smith's Detroit, Michigan, grocery store.
New left the company for personal reasons in 1930. Smith was killed by lightning in 1937.
And Chun King:
Chun King was an American line of canned Chinese food products founded in the 1940s by Jeno Paulucci, who also developed Jeno's Pizza Rolls and frozen pizza, and the Michelina's brand of frozen food products, among many others. By 1962, Chun King was bringing in $30 million in annual revenue and accounted for half of all U.S. sales of prepared Chinese food. Chun King was sold to the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, in 1966 for $63 million.
l won't go into the history of how the two companies competed and merged, nor how they were both bought by large food conglomerates. What's remarkable is that, in one or another guise, they survived for so long even after authentic Chinese food became widely available in America.
What prompted this post in the first place was the following photograph, sent to me by fintano:
Maidhc comments on the feelings evoked by the photograph:
I have a vague recollection from my youth that Stan Freberg made commercials for Chun King (which was founded by an Italian), and even as a child I loved Stan Freberg, and more so as an adult.
See Stan Freberg Presents the Chun King Chow Mein Hour in this Wikipedia article. This was during the advertising part of his career, which was later than most of his recordings.
I was just looking through the Yelp reviews and I found this:
"some dishes may be hella ma la hot"
Is this the most SF Bay Area sentence ever?
Chow mein from a can ≠ chǎomiàn / caau2min6 from a wok ≠ Chóngqìng xiǎomiàn 重慶小面 ("Chongqing / Chungking noodles") in a San Francisco Sichuanese restaurant, though they all have their own charms.