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May 3, 2022
The Korean Immigrant and Michigan Farm Boy Who Taught Americans How to Cook Chow Mein
Article 2 LA_CHOY_2000

La Choy soy sauce bottles and canned bean sprouts are a familiar sight in American grocery stores, but behind this hundred-year-old brand is a story fit for Hollywood.

Walk down the dubious ethnic aisle of an American supermarket, past the Old El Paso taco dinner kits and jars of Indian and Korean sauté sauces, and you’re bound to find them: canned “chop suey” vegetables, bottled soy sauce and teriyaki sauce, maybe a box of fortune cookies, and crispy twigs of fried noodles in a can, all from a brand called La Choy. Today, the logo has the Chinese character for “east” beside the brand name. But the company’s true origins lie in the Midwest.

In 1922, two friends from the University of Michigan founded La Choy in Detroit. One hundred years later, its mass-produced Chinese food products, designed to “add spark to your meal planning” with “delicious, different Chinatown meals,” per a 1958 recipe booklet from the brand, are a nationwide business with annual sales of $75 to $80 million. Neither founder was Chinese.

Much of the discussion over the history of American Chinese food has been centered around the resilience and resourcefulness that scores of small, independent Chinese restaurants—helmed by immigrant Chinese Americans—determined to crystallize a new American cuisine, in spite of restrictions and racial animus. Classic dishes like chop suey and (much later on) General Tso’s chicken were adapted for American tastes and demands. But thanks to its mass production, distribution, and advertising of products that have remained largely unchanged for the last century, La Choy has had a large and lasting impact on Chinese food in America. To many Americans, the brand’s ubiquitous kits, sauces, tinned vegetables, and recipes for dishes like chow mein (with crispy noodles on top, rather than below a saucy topping) simply are Chinese food.

“One of the things that appeals about this brand is the consistency—it’s not necessarily bringing anything new to the category,” says Dan Skinner, communications manager at Conagra Brands, the food conglomerate that has owned La Choy since 1990. The core offerings haven’t changed much over the years—you can still get canned bean sprouts, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots, just like in the 1920s.

Sales are consistent, if not stronger than ever, according to Skinner, who provided the annual sales estimate. In the United States, La Choy is the top-selling brand for chow mein noodles and Asian vegetables, and the second-best-selling brand for soy sauce behind Kikkoman.

“Non–Chinese American individuals and organizations such as La Choy played a role in the development of Chinese food in America,” says Yong Chen, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America. “This is something that some of us who write about that history sometimes did not pay sufficient attention to.”

For many Chinese Americans in 2022, La Choy is synonymous with cultural inauthenticity, even appropriation. With its softened chopsticks font against a royal blue background, the name itself is a vague caricature of East Asian delicacies à la Chef Boyardee. For others, the brand barely registers as Chinese food cosplay, strictly for non-Chinese Americans. “These weren’t the things you’d find in Chinatown,” says Diana Kuan, author of The Chinese Takeout Cookbook. “So it was kind of like, ‘Oh, those are Americanized Chinese products.’”

“I can say that I’ve always seen La Choy, but I’ve never used it,” says Tim Ma, owner of Arlington, Virginia’s Lucky Danger Chinese takeout, whose uncle and father were also Chinese restaurateurs in America. “I’ve never seen it in my family’s kitchens or restaurants.” And despite its impressive sales volume, some felt that the brand had a limited target customer in mind: “Midwestern white moms,” according to Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

But the sauce thickens when you consider the duo that began it all. Somehow it was a Korean immigrant named Ilhan New and an American named Wallace “Wally” Smith who teamed up in Great Depression–era Detroit to build an empire that would eventually make “Chinese” a go-to home-cooked meal for much of America. This unique pairing of cultural backgrounds, as well as La Choy’s central location in the heartland, positioned the brand well, fueling success that is still enjoyed today. Yet neither founder would stick around to see its legacy for long: New returned to Korea in the mid-1920s, founding a pharmaceutical giant there and passing away in 1971; Smith was killed by a freak lightning strike in 1937.

Ilhan and Wally

You won’t see these names lovingly recalled on the labels of La Choy products, nor on its website. You won’t even see them mentioned in the recipe booklets that La Choy published and distributed each year from as far back as the 1930s to as recently as the ’90s, many editions of which can still be found at garage sales and on websites like Etsy and eBay (more on those later).

You will find Ilhan New’s name on the cover of a 200-page book published in 1928, When I Was a Boy in Korea. Part of a series of books written by Americans who immigrated from other countries (e.g., When I Was a Girl in Sweden), it chronicled New’s early childhood and sought to educate readers on Korean culture, with chapters highlighting “Holidays and Games,” for instance. In the editor’s preface, Lee A. White of the Detroit News sketches a rough biography of the author, including his birth in 1894 in Pyongyang to a successful businessman who had converted to Christianity (rare at the time).

“Mr. New’s father was much impressed with the things he learned of the life, customs, and ideas of the New World, and he was a progressive exponent of Occidental culture,” the preface reads. When New was nine, his father sent him off to school in America, “after much counsel with missionaries,” landing in the small agricultural town of Kearney, Nebraska. By his senior year of high school in nearby Hastings, Nebraska, he’d earned a reputation as a center on the football team and as a “brilliant boy orator and debater.” New then headed to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in business administration in 1919.

Also in New’s graduating class was Wally Smith of Evart, Michigan. As Smith’s daughter, Jeanine Dean, described in a recent phone call, her father had to take up work at the post office whenever he ran out of tuition money, taking whole semesters at a time off until he had enough money to continue pursuing his business degree. Smith had an itch to do more with his life than what small-town Evart could offer, says Dean. His first venture was “some kind of chicken enterprise” with some local men, but it failed. “Some people are just born wanting to know more,” says Dean, when asked why her father decided to enroll in college and head 170 miles south to Ann Arbor.

In the United States, La Choy is the top-selling brand for chow mein noodles and Asian vegetables, and the second-best-selling brand for soy sauce behind Kikkoman.

After graduating from college, Smith moved to Detroit, where he opened a grocery store. New was employed for a time at the Michigan Central Railroad, then at General Electric in Schenectady, New York, before returning to Detroit. “Even as he worked for others, New was continuously involved in small-scale entrepreneurship,” writes Anne Soon Choi in her 2016 article for the academic journal Cultural and Social History, “La Choy Chinese Food Swings American?: Korean Immigrant Entrepreneurship and American Orientalism Before World War II.”

So New started growing bean sprouts in his basement. This might sound like an ambitious project you’d find in a modern-day DIY gardening book. But in the early 20th century, it was an everyday activity for Korean women, whose labors made bean sprouts an indispensable side dish in Korean households, according to Choi. Plus, they were inexpensive and easy to grow in just a bathtub. But beyond that, bean sprouts just so happened to dovetail with a trend that New was eager to capitalize on: the chop suey craze that had taken hold of cities throughout America.

According to Dean, Smith and New were friends who’d often attend University of Michigan football games together while they were classmates. It can be presumed that New approached Smith about selling his bean sprouts at Smith’s grocery store, which he did. They were an exciting novelty at the time, Dean says, but there was a catch: the fresh sprouts would turn brown and unappealing once they had been on shelves a few days. “So he went to Lansing and got permission from a factory there to can them in glass,” says Dean of her father. But the project failed as the process still turned the sprouts dark and unappetizing. Next, they tried tinning them, and that worked: crisp-tender, translucent sticks that were pale yellow rather than a dull brown.

The plan, of course, was not just to sell the canned bean sprouts in Smith’s grocery store but to grow the company, offering a shelf-stable good that provided convincing flair to a home-cooked version of chop suey across America, under the brand christened La Choy. (It’s unclear what, if anything, the name signifies, and the thinking behind it appears lost to history; a 1972 report in the Wall Street Journal quotes a company official who believed New and Smith “coined the name right out of the air, because it does have a Chinese sound to it.”)

Ilhan New in an undated photo

A handful of Smith’s friends and family members pitched in for the initial $25,000 capitalization that allowed them to rent a canning factory on East Jefferson Avenue. Dean, who is 92 years old, can recall seeing the rows of long bean sprout growing tubs, which held a shallow pool of water in which the sprouts grew from mung beans. She said a brilliant employee named Ed invented the machinery that allowed them to grow the bean sprouts on a large scale indoors.

Other common vegetables found in chop suey and other Chinese stir-fries at the time included celery and carrot, which were widely grown in the United States, and water chestnuts and bamboo shoots, which were not and had to be imported from China. (In a 1942 edition of The Art and Secrets of Chinese Cookery, the La Choy–branded recipe booklet, a blurb on La Choy bamboo shoots describes them as “imported from those sections of China in which climate and soil are favorable to the cultivation of the most desirable variety.”) Therefore, Smith and New began eyeing the prospect of growing their own celery and other vegetables—and moving into a new, bigger facility that could be closer to the farm.

The unusual partnership of an Asian immigrant—albeit not Chinese—and a white American man of European ancestry and local familiarity was fortuitous for La Choy’s early years. It was New, writes Choi, who had the magical abilities of a natural salesman, while Smith worked to secure distribution channels.

“Having New, an ‘Oriental,’ as the front man for La Choy provided the company with a certain authenticity that resonated with the company’s mission of providing authentic Chinese food,” writes Choi. And thanks to Smith’s involvement, a Korean immigrant could navigate American business with relative ease, a boon not afforded to most immigrant-owned businesses at the time.

In 1925, according to Dean, China’s civil war was interrupting their supply of mung beans, so New returned to Korea in order to source the beans. According to When I Was a Boy in Korea, 1925 was also the year that New married Mary Woo, an American-born Chinese physician whom he met while they were students at the University of Michigan. And, mung bean shortage or not, New’s father turned 61, the age upon which it was customary for men to retire and pass on their duties to their eldest son, which was Ilhan.

“His son felt strongly the urge to return to his native land, not only to accept his filial responsibilities but to serve his people by introducing into Korea as much as he could of American business methods and economic doctrines,” writes White in the preface to New’s book. Although New returned to America to receive degrees at the University of Southern California and Stanford University in the 1940s, his involvement in La Choy seems to have ended there. Instead, in 1926, he established the Yuhan Corporation, today a multinational pharmaceutical company and one of the largest firms in Korea.

As for Smith, who became La Choy’s general manager in New’s absence, he bought a farm near North Branch, Michigan, to start growing mung beans and other vegetables to reduce the company’s reliance on imported goods. And in the 1930s, La Choy began making deep-fried, crunchy chow mein noodles, a topping that Dean says her father was particularly excited about. In 1937, the company was just breaking ground on a new factory when Smith and several other families held a picnic at that farm. It was Father’s Day, and Dean was seven years old. Everyone was in the barn, which was filled with hay, when an electrical storm began to roll in. Smith and the other men rounded up the families to head to the farmhouse, in case a lightning bolt sparked a fire in the barn. As he and another father, Emmett Miller, were hooking the barn doors down with a large chain, lightning struck.

“I turned around because there must have been a loud noise, and I think I saw something the size of a gallon paint can going through the barn doors,” says Dean.

Both men were killed instantly. The money in Smith’s pockets melted together, and both his shoes were blown off.

La Choy’s new Detroit factory was temporarily seized by the US government around 1940, along with other Detroit factories, to support the World War II effort. The company was acquired by Beatrice Foods in 1943, a hostile takeover that Dean says forced her family members to sell their shares. Today, she lives in a house in Glen Lake, Michigan that was recently adorned with a relic from her father’s legacy: a La Choy–branded children’s rickshaw from 1950s-era marketing efforts, which her daughter found online as a 92nd birthday gift. Asked what her father might think of La Choy still being around, Dean replied, “I’m sure he would be very pleased.”

Made in America, Marketed for Americans

On the last page of the 1942 edition of The Art and Secrets of Chinese Cookery (and prior editions) is a black-and-white photograph of the first La Choy factory in Detroit. A blurb beneath it includes the following sentence: “Carefully selected products are tested and approved in our laboratory kitchen and packed under sanitary conditions on automatic equipment in the United States by American men and women.”

After La Choy’s acquisition by Beatrice Foods and a corporate move to Archbold, Ohio, the last page on the 1958 edition of the recipe booklet shows an aerial view of the factory in Archbold, and within its blurb: “Scrupulously clean, you can be sure ingredients are carefully selected to safeguard quality and inspected by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to assure your satisfaction.”

From its start, New and Smith were savvy enough to understand that “Chinese food” already had a certain reputation in the United States. While loved by many, it also carried xenophobic notions of being somehow unclean—stereotypes that exist to this day. The heavily nationalistic approach to marketing Chinese food would stick with the company throughout much of its history.

As the company evolved, importing fewer and fewer materials from China, its literature was updated, too. The 1942 booklet blurb for bean sprouts describes the vegetable as “originally native to the orient, but today grown extensively in this country.” Whereas the 1958 version reads, “La Choy bean sprouts are produced in our plant from a Chinese Mung Bean that is grown in America.”

Later on, in the 1980s, the company advertised with the jingle “La Choy makes Chinese food swing American,” which could be roughly translated as: “La Choy’s Chinese food is the more palatable and safe Americanized version of the Chinese food you’re craving or are curious about.”

Through all this advertising, La Choy demonstrated effective strategies in marketing Chinese food to non–Chinese American audiences.

“They know how to promote it,” says Chen, history professor at UC Irvine. “Here you have this major corporation stepping in and doing advertising.” The vast majority of Chinese restaurants, on the other hand, were mom-and-pop operations, without the knowledge or resources to promote their own businesses, let alone effectively promote Chinese food to people who were unfamiliar and even fearful of it.

That included the frequently updated recipe booklets, which were widely distributed “compliments of La Choy,” as the back of the 1958 edition reads, in grocery stores. It was something that brands like Jell-O and others had been doing for years to inspire women to cook with their product—and often to great success (molded salad, anyone?).

“The recipes are in English, the labels are all in English, too,” says Kuan, the cookbook author, who explains that this is still a major roadblock for many people about cooking Chinese food: What if I can’t read the labels?

Over the decades, all this marketing has contributed to a gradual acceptance and embrace of Chinese food in America—and, by extension, of Chinese people and culture as a whole.

“No one knew about bean sprouts and that they were used in Asian cooking until they were mass-produced,” says Kuan.

Martin Yan, the longtime PBS cooking show star, agreed that La Choy was instrumental in introducing Chinese food to America.

“People still don’t know too much about Chinese food, and La Choy is a very good entry to have a basic understanding of it,” he says. For instance, vegetables and meat are cut to bite-size pieces, there’s an emphasis on color, and the meals are meant to be shared, family-style. “The role that La Choy played is to give a little introduction” of that, he says.

Yet while La Choy’s products helped spread awareness of Chinese food, the exposure was a double-edged sword, as they also helped reinforce stereotypes of Chinese food as “cheap, inexpensive, and simple,” says Chen.

Soy Sauce or Not?

In its early years, La Choy’s soy sauce was imported from China wholesale and packaged under the brand’s name. In the shift to domestic reliance, La Choy began selling a product that isn’t really soy sauce at all. It’s hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)—a miracle substance often used as instant broth or bouillon in a process that was formulated by Julius Maggi (of the cube) in 1886. It’s a chemical that allows La Choy soy sauce to be manufactured quickly, says Grace Young, author of three Chinese cookbooks, including The Breath of a Wok.

“Naturally brewed soy sauce can have over 250 different flavor compounds,” says Young. “There is no comparison in the quality of a naturally fermented soy sauce versus La Choy.”

The ingredients in La Choy’s soy sauce today are vastly different from Kikkoman’s and other naturally brewed soy sauces: it’s just water, HVP, salt, corn syrup, caramel color, and the preservative potassium sorbate—versus water, soybeans, wheat, and salt. It’s understandable that, in trying times, La Choy’s leaders would improvise to produce an American-made substitute for an essential Chinese ingredient. HVP-based soy sauces exist from other brands throughout the Chinese diaspora, too, although not in China, where soy sauce has been made for thousands of years. But in today’s market, where La Choy’s is the second-best-selling soy sauce, many consumers may be simply unaware that there are more traditional, nuanced, and flavorful alternatives. Even Dan Skinner, Conagra’s communications manager, was unaware that there was any difference between La Choy’s sauce and others: “I think they’re pretty consistent,” he said of soy sauces in general.

This takes us back to the double-edged sword of the industrialization and Americanization of Chinese food for non-Chinese audiences: it sets a precedent that isn’t always accurate or positive—and it can be hard to shake off. The drawbacks go further than consumers not knowing what real soy sauce tastes like. The chop suey craze of the mid 19th century and early 20th century fizzled out in large part due to La Choy’s mass production of the meal, according to Miranda Brown, professor of Chinese history at the University of Michigan, in her article “The Hidden, Magnificent History of Chop Suey”: “While this helped make the dish a household staple, it also tarnished chop suey’s reputation. By the 1950s, gourmands, restaurant critics, and Chinese food lovers all had snubbed the dish.” So, while the independent Chinese American restaurants who created chop suey to make a living against the odds in America weren’t solely responsible for its tarnished reputation, they were perhaps most directly affected by it.

“People still don’t know too much about Chinese food, and La Choy is a very good entry to have a basic understanding of it.”

At the same time, La Choy had left many Americans with positive associations with Chinese food, including its healthfulness. The products not only offered convenience, it advertised, but healthy, well-balanced meals: “Highly nutritious, Chop Suey for example contains five to nine vegetables. . . . A balanced one-dish meal you yourself can prepare at home in fifteen minutes, rivaling the magic creations of the most famous Chinese chefs,” reads the 1942 recipe booklet. This marketing helped give Chinese food a health halo for many Americans from their earliest encounters with it.

“I was surprised, in fact, to learn that Americans of my great-grandparents’ day were very fond of bean sprouts and soy products for health reasons!” wrote Brown in a recent email.

With a clear stake in selling vegetable-forward meals, La Choy even went so far as to sell and market meatless meals long before the term came into vogue. The 1942 recipe booklets featured a “Meatless Chop Suey or Chow Mein” recipe using La Choy products as well as an advertisement for its “Meatless Chinese Dinner” kits, “Ideal for Fast Days, Lent, or for individuals restricted to a meatless diet.”

It’s unclear whether that healthy reputation has persisted in Americans’ conception of Chinese food today. “Fried” and “greasy” are words critically—and ignorantly—used to describe Chinese restaurant food writ large. But “well-balanced” and “wholesome” were no doubt useful at the time in pushing back on stereotypes of Chinese food as unclean.

A Tale of Two Chow Meins

A sprinkling of crispy chow mein noodles atop dishes is perhaps La Choy’s most iconic contribution to Chinese food in America. La Choy may not have been the first brand to package and sell this product, which resembles twigs of broken pretzels, to consumers. In Fall River, Massachusetts, the almost-one-hundred-year-old Oriental Chow Mein Company was founded in 1926 by Frederick Wong, an immigrant from Guangdong province (formerly known as Canton). According to the packages—which are still available, albeit only in stores in the Falls River area of southern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island—they were originally made for Chinese restaurants in the area.

The chow mein noodles also factored in a regional food specialty of the chow mein sandwich, which took off in the ’50s and is still served in at least one Fall River restaurant. Essentially, the chow mein recipe is stuffed inside a bun, sloppy joe–style, with plentiful crispy chow mein noodles for texture. The sandwich was once popular enough to have sold widely throughout the East Coast, including at Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island. And on Lent, a vegetarian chow mein sandwich was a cheap and satisfying working-class wonder.

So, while the crispy noodle topping appears to have originated with Chinese restaurants, La Choy’s mass production, nationwide distribution, and advertising of these “chow mein noodles” cemented them as a must-have garnish for Chinese food. When the crispy panfried noodles that were popularized in Hong Kong in the 1950s made their way to Chinese restaurants stateside, they created some confusion. This dish, also typically called chow mein, features a tangle of thin egg noodles that are crisped all around and plated as a sort of bird’s nest beneath a saucy mixture of slivered meat or seafood and vegetables that would be stirred together tableside. The recipes for chow mein in La Choy’s recipe booklets, as far back as 1942 at least, instruct readers to serve a sauced meat and vegetable mixture “piping hot with La Choy Noodles for Chow Mein, or cooked rice for Chop Suey.” But the photographs of the finished dishes were often styled with the chow mein noodles sprinkled atop the dish. To this day, chow mein noodles are, to many Americans, a crunchy garnish for stir-fries, salads, and even casseroles, in the vein of potato chips or croutons.

Jim Henson’s Dragon

By the mid-to-late ’60s, the growing number of Chinese restaurants increasingly cut into La Choy’s sales. Immigrants from all over China and the globe, newly unrestricted by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, opened restaurants, expanding not only America’s conception of Chinese food but access to inexpensive and relatively healthy takeout. La Choy’s marketing team at Beatrice Foods sought to give the brand a new spin by hiring a young puppeteer to make some commercials. The result was the La Choy dragon, sometimes called Delbert, performed by none other than Jim Henson (well before The Muppet Show fame).

 “Hey! You like chow mein?” huffs the fuchsia dragon in one spot.

“Uh-huh,” mutters a spectacled puppet, looking aloof.

“What kind?”

“The takeout kind.”

“You should try La Choy chow mein—it’s crisp and crunchy, as good as the takeout kind!”

The dragon goes on to promise that La Choy’s vegetables are “quick-cooked in dragon fire” with a pyrotechnic flourish. The commercials prove that Chinese restaurants had a leg up on La Choy, which could only hope to convince viewers—through the aid of a fire-breathing dragon—that it was as good as Chinese takeout.

Convenience Food Forever

The whole story of La Choy is perhaps more complex than the flavors of its sauces. The products are both a dusty relic of an early-20th-century fascination with Chinese (or “Oriental”) cuisine and a painful reminder of how stubbornly this ignorance may have persisted, despite the waves of migration, the many cuisines from all over China, and the 5.4 million Chinese Americans as of 2021, according to the Pew Research Center. The American company had very little, if any, involvement from Chinese or Chinese Americans—Skinner couldn’t name any Chinese American employees, and Dean couldn’t recall any Chinese people who worked for the company either. That lack of representation shows in its products today, just as it did yesterday. At a time when there are more and more AAPI-owned food businesses entering the supermarket, one might wonder what, exactly, La Choy’s role is today—and what its future is.

“Education on Asian food has come a long way,” says Tony Wu, founder of Nomz, a brand of frozen Asian convenience meals whose employees are 80 percent Asian American. Consumer preferences have also matured. “If you look at the frozen foods at a Trader Joe’s, they have new foods every day—it’s no longer just a hungry man with two pancakes and a biscuit,” he says, but Asian ingredients like galbi or dishes like pho.

Yet La Choy, which predates most nationwide Chinese food brands like Panda Express, deserves a lot of respect for being able to stay in business for 100 years, says Wu. The founders built a powerful brand. It quietly pioneered the mass production of bean sprouts indoors from seed to can—which is still done in its Archbold, Ohio, factory. It was also a uniquely American-born business. Like chop suey and crispy chow mein noodles, La Choy’s canned sliced vegetable mixes were something that didn’t really exist in China at the time. Even by the time my mother came to the United States from Taiwan in the 1970s, canned vegetables were a culture shock. But by preserving fresh vegetables, La Choy was able to scale up the sale of “Chinese food,” however altered it had become.

“There’s always going to be people who think that New dumbed down or ‘domesticated’ Asian foods for an intolerant American audience,” says Brown. “But I think his story is more complex. Here’s a man who operated in the heyday of Exclusion, who was unable to become an American citizen, and who faced tremendous social barriers. Yet despite this, he found a way to team up with a white American partner and succeed.”

It might be noted that Chinese-owned small companies, like the Oriental Noodle Company of Fall River, Massachusetts, that sold Chinese grocery products under the brand Hoo-Mee, never reached that level of national distribution. La Choy’s closest competitor for decades, Chun King, was similarly founded by a non–Chinese American (it was discontinued after being sold to Conagra in 1995). More recently, Annie Chun, a competing brand of Asian convenience foods in the grocery store, was founded by a Korean American woman (you guessed it, her real name) in the 1990s.

But large companies like La Choy and others are not the main reason why Chinese food became popular in the United States in the first place—that honor goes to Chinese Americans. “The popularity started with the labor, hard work, sacrifice, and, to a large degree, the discrimination they faced,” says Chen, the UC Irvine professor. Chinese Americans were forced into culinary and laundry businesses as a last resort after racist legislation effectively prevented them from working in other industries in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

And though La Choy’s contributions to making Chinese food a mainstream American cuisine may have helped soften racism and xenophobia against Chinese Americans, as some have suggested, it seemed to do so at the expense of independently Chinese American–run restaurants, assuring customers that their product was the more sanitary, healthful, and wholesome version of Chinese food.

To be sure, not all Chinese Americans are anti–La Choy. For many, the brand provided access to Asian ingredients in places where none could be found.

“I know that my parents, for their first 30 years here, were kind of homesick,” says Belinda Chang, a James Beard Award–winning sommelier. Growing up in Edison, New Jersey, and later Chicago, in the ’70s and ’80s, Chang’s family would make pilgrimages to the nearest Chinatown to stock up on Chinese products at an Asian supermarket about once a month. But when they ran out of soy sauce or needed water chestnuts or bean sprouts for spring rolls, La Choy was the local fallback.

Chang’s mother, who was from Taiwan, eagerly tried out the brand’s recipes, too, although she often riffed on them, making a combination of authentic and not-so-authentic dishes, like sweet and sour pork ribs with pineapple, and sprinkling La Choy chow mein noodles on top of her own stir-fried dishes, especially when entertaining guests. In Chicago, Chang recalls, her parents made friends in their new city by hosting parties frequently. They were a hit, and some of the American friends they made still cook the elder Ms. Chang’s sweet and sour pork with pineapple.

“We basically taught our friends—and maybe the entire chemical research team at Exxon—what Chinese food is,” says Chang.

These experiences might encapsulate what La Choy was to many: simultaneously a starting point for some and a stopgap or substitute for others. If you didn’t know Chinese food, well, here was a brand that could give you your first, if whitewashed, glimpse into that world to start learning more. And if you did, well, here was something that could maybe hold you over—or inspire you to give your cooking your own American spin. Maybe there was something to admire about the audacity to do things a little differently, to figure out another way of seeing your cultural heritage, to try something new.

“I guess my feeling for La Choy is that it worked, but it didn’t always feel super authentic to us,” says Belinda Chang. “But we were glad it existed.”

Shelve It explores the world of groceries, from the fluorescent-lit aisles to the nooks and crannies of your cupboard. We dive into why certain ingredients got pantry staple status, the connection between cookbooks and buying habits, the online-ification of grocery shopping, and what gets shelved along the way.

Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway is the author of the cookbook The Food of Taiwan and the memoir The Art of Eating In. She hosts the podcasts Self Evident, exploring Asian American stories, and Eat Your Words on Heritage Radio Network, and blogs at Not Eating Out in New York.