Why Is Massachusetts Chinese Food Served With Dinner Rolls?

·5 min read
Graphic:  Karl Gustafson
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

When my family picked up our annual New Year’s eve Chinese takeout from the Royal Garden in Kingston, Massachusetts, the first thing we unbagged every time was a small wax paper bag stuffed with six French rolls.

The rolls were an essential part of the meal. Served slightly stale and with the pads of butter like the ones you might find at a casual Italian restaurant, the rolls were loaded onto everyone’s plate alongside the pork fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, and beef teriyaki skewers without a thought to the consonance. A flaky tear of bread mopping up leftover General Gau’s sauce? What could be more appetizing?

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When I left Massachusetts for college, I was soon alerted to just how incongruent the idea of bread and butter being served alongside fried rice was to the average person. It had always been a constant: wherever we ordered from south of Boston, there were either rolls in a basket on the table or that familiar wax paper bag in the takeout. I never stopped to wonder how this started or why it persists, if only in my home state. Until now.

The origin of Chinese-American cuisine

Author Andy Coe chronicled the rise of popular Americanized Chinese cuisine in his 2009 book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. His book catalogs many regional specialties, microcosms of Chinese-American food’s proliferation across the United States in post-WWII America. Though the Connecticut-born writer hadn’t ever been served rolls with his lo mein, he is not surprised it became a custom.

“The Chinese who were feeding Westerners were convinced that Westerners had to have, at every meal, bread and butter, which is something that they never had,” Coe says. Over time, that cultural expectation became so ingrained that, in 1972, when Nixon went to Beijing to meet with Chinese Premiere Zhou Enlai, he was served bread and butter to start the banquet. “This was a great Chinese meal with Peking duck and many, many courses, but that’s what they thought Americans must have, or it wouldn’t be a meal.”

According to Coe’s book, the style of Chinese food that most American diners are accustomed to is a chimera of Hunan, Sichuan, and Cantonese adapted for American sensibilities and made famous in New York City’s Chinatown in the 1880s or 1890s. There are few regional specialties in the modern interpretation of casual Chinese dining—Coe points to Minnesota-style Chow Mein and St. Louis’ St. Paul Sandwich as infamous examples—and what Americans know as “Chinese” was quickly homogenized and scaled up. You can walk into any Chinese joint in the States and get basically the same thing, which is core to the appeal.

How then did we end up with an orphaned tradition like pre-dinner bread rolls? Coe isn’t concerned with lore or specifics. To him, it’s a natural, if not somewhat strange, side effect of a kitchen working to serve two very distinct palates.

“In the old days, there were always two sides to the menu: the side with the chop suey and chow mein, the Chinese-American dishes; and the side with the American dishes, like a ham sandwich or chicken salad,” he says. “Somehow, the ingredients made a migration from one side of the menu to the other side.”

Yong Chen, professor of history at University of California, Irvine, and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, concurs. Though he can’t deduce why this particular tradition took off in Massachusetts in particular.

“Many Chinese restaurants have tended to serve whatever customers wanted—a lot of them have also served pure ‘American’ food,” Yong Chen says “In addition, fusion is one of the successful strategies that Chinese restaurateurs have adopted.”

A Massachusetts anomaly

Massachusetts has a peculiar Chinese-American food tradition. A 2016 NPR story attributed the rise of lobster sauce and chow mein sandwiches to Chinese immigration to Boston in the late 1800s. When Chinese laborers arrived in Beantown, they sold food for cheap to other larger ethnic groups of wage workers, like the Italians and Irish. Soon, the food started to morph to their customers’ cultural expectations.

“[Those] two groups were the first non-Chinese in Boston who started eating Chinese food—because it was cheap, but at the same time it was something different and exotic for them,” Boston University anthropology professor Merry White told NPR. “Both the Italian and the Irish expected bread with any meal—so that’s how the idea of serving bread with Chinese food became a thing in Boston.”

Perhaps no dish epitomizes this cultural enmeshing like Peking ravioli. These rebranded pot stickers were popularized by Cambridge-born chef Joyce Chen, who chose the name specifically to appeal to Italians in the area. Joyce Chen is often credited with popularizing much of the Boston Chinese tradition, including serving bread.

“When we had the restaurant, it was always around 3 o’clock when it was down time, when the job was to go into Chinatown and pick up the later crew, and also your bean sprouts and Chinese supplies,” Stephen Chen, Joyce’s son, told WBUR in 2016. “And you would always see these bags of bread line up, and people getting their bags of bread, putting them in their vans, and going off to their suburban restaurants. When we started, we actually started to serve bread, back in 1958.”

It’s difficult to tell how widespread the practice is. Though it seems to be subregionalized to southern Massachusetts and northern Rhode Island, New England restaurants as far north as New Hampshire serve rolls. Kowloon, the iconic Polynesian-style Chinese restaurant and comedy theater on Massachusetts’ north shore, used to start dinner service with buttered rolls, but Coe, who grew up in New York, had never heard of it until he spoke to The Takeout for this story. Neither had Yong Chen.

Even in the mishmash that is Boston Chinese, the rolls still stick out as the most curious bit of menu discord. It’s an offering that startles even scholars of the cuisine. But if you’re ordering takeout in Kingston, Massachusetts, it’s just what shows up in the bag. Every time.