From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cooked in Dragon Fire

“Hey, umm… do you know what this is missing?”

This, after having just slaved over a kitchen and triumphantly plated and served 4 servings of stir fried chicken, which everyone got to build themselves.

“You forgot the water chestnuts and the green beans. All the things I wanted got left out.”

I walked to the pantry in disbelief, and sure as I was standing there, I saw the can of La Choy water chestnuts, smiling right back at me (figuratively, of course) right next to the rice. The worst part of forgetting to include the water chestnuts was that I had to move the can aside to get to the rice, yet I still managed to forget them.

As a general rule, I am not a huge fan of La Choy products. They have many different products available for purchase, including vegetables, sauces and seasonings. My first thought, when trying one of their sauces, was “Who in heaven’s name are they trying to target as their primary audience / diner?

Turns out that the company has been around for years, and they seem to know what they are doing, given that failure is usually followed by closure, or redistribution of wealth, or reassessment.

Having just surpassed the benchmark of three-quarters of a century making Chinese food, one wonders if the two founders of La Choy, neither of whom were Chinese, imagined their future in this light Did they dream their company would make a large variety of Chinese products? Did they think other American manufacturers might also make and sell Chinese foods? Did they think Americans would consume large amounts of their Chinese foods in and outside of their homes? Did they dream they would become one part of a huge company? It probably was inconceivable imagining their company a component of one of the largest of food companies in the world.

Originally, Wally Smith and Ilhan New were friends. They became founders of the La Choy food products company. How they selected the name may never be known. Why they got together might not either, but that has some logic. Smith was an American grocer who knew what his customers wanted. Simply put, he wanted to sell them bean sprouts because his Detroit shoppers wanted to buy them. No one really knows why or how he saw this market need, but he did, and the rest is history.

Ilhan New was Smith’s Korean college friend. Before and during 1920, they thought about, then founded the La Choy company. Bean sprouts were not, if you will excuse the pun, new to New. He knew how to grow them, cook them, and eat them. This friendship became the cornerstone of this Chinese food company’s beginnings. It was a cornerstone that took root in middle America.

The company they began may even have started Chinese cooking in American homes. Until they did, non-Asians rarely cooked Chinese food themselves. There is probably a grain of truth (rice, we hope) to this. Certainly, there were very few Chinese restaurants in middle America at that time, probably even fewer places to purchase Chinese ingredients. And in short supply were folks who knew what Chinese food was all about or how to make it.

What did these two food pioneer friends envision? Certainly not that their bean sprout business would be a component of a thirty-five brand conglomerate whose unit manufactures dozens of food items. Surely not that they would have sister branches called Chun King, Marie Callender, Mama Rosa, Hebrew National, Swiss Miss, and many other ethnic and non-ethnically-related companies. Yes, La Choy and all these companies are now part of the Con Agra Food conglomerate.

La Choy began simply by growing and selling bean sprouts fresh. Next they put them up in glass jars. Some time later bean sprouts were put up in metal cans. Where in middle American was this done? In Detroit, Michigan, the city where Smith had a grocery store.

To educate the consumer and sell their products, these two founders of La Choy gave out booklets to tell folks how to use their products. The first of these that we located is dated 1925. It is called La Choy Book of Chinese Recipes. The cover has a Chinese-looking lady on the outside and recipes on the inside. These recipes were for foods such as Chow Mein and Waldorf Salad. One recipe was for Creole Sauce. Did Smith and New think them Chinese? Did their customers?

Another early La Choy booklet located was dated 1929. Its cover also said La Choy Chinese Recipes, however, above its title and in smaller type were the words: 'Art and Secrets of Chinese Cookery.' The lady on its cover was not Chinese. Behind her was an almost ghost-like man, probably Chinese, but in western-chef’s whites and hat. He looked as if he wanted to lend a helping hand. Many, and not all of the recipes in this booklet were the same as in earlier one.

Keep in mind that these two friends began raising and selling bean sprouts. Several recipes used them. One was for Sprouts au Gratin. That recipe had dairy products in it, and potatoes, onions, green peppers, and of course, some bean sprouts. It was made in the French 'au gratin' style. Other recipes in this give-away/hand-out were for Water Chestnut Souffle, and Stewed Sprouts with Tomato. And there were others like that.

Some time after that, all La Choy multiple-page recipe booklets were titled: The Art and Secrets of Chinese Cookery. One edition, dated 1942, had a lovely little blond girl putting a very western pie down on a table. Maybe this was typical cooking in Detroit, where their company was headquartered. In the 1920's and 1930's their recipe booklets had fourteen, then sixteen, and eighteen pages; we found one with twenty-six-pages from 1942.

By 1949, the La Choy company had moved to Archbold, Ohio and had become part of the Beatrice Foods company. At that time, the covers of their booklets had no people on them. Between the covers were recipes for canned Tuna Fish Chop Suey, Singapore Slaw, and Sub Gum Chop Suey and many others found in their earlier booklets. By 1954, their booklets grew to thirty pages, and the contents included older recipes and others for Tuna Salad, Hamburger Chop Suey, and Lobster Cantonese.

Sometime before 1962, a Chinese lady again graced the cover of an Art and Science of Chinese Cooking booklet. At least we assume the face hiding behind the fan of a woman wearing a Chinese-like top was indeed Chinese. That 1962 edition included recipes from older booklets and others such as Bridge Party Chop Suey, and Joy Choy Pie. The pie was topped with whipped cream and pecans. Chinese you ask? Well, it did have a crust made from chow mein noodles.

By 1975, booklets from this company were physically larger and had a greater variety of recipes. Some, those already mentioned, others were newer including items such as No Bake Walnut Balls, Noodle Raison Cookies, Peach Noodle Kuchen, and Frankfurter Chow Mein. Still, many of the recipes were neither Asian nor Chinese. Another change was that the booklet had a new name and was titled: The Wonderful World of Oriental Cookery. New also was that it no longer was a give-away; it was for sale at seventy-five cents.

Before and since, La Choy has handed out many recipe booklets and single-page flyer-type items. One was called La-Choyable Holiday Recipes. Another. The La Choy Collection of Favorite Oriental Recipes. By this point, La Choy products had moved from Beatrice Foods to become one of many Hunt-Wesson food brands. When part of Hunt-Wesson, they tried a new direction for amusing book titles. One such was called: La Choy, Not Your Average Junk Food.

In the meantime, some recipe titles may shed light on the topic. There was Chinese Fruit Salad made with bean sprouts, soy sauce, and mayonnaise in a 1937 booklet. Three years later, there was a Bean Sprout Meat Loaf recipe. In 1958, there was a recipe for Chinese Tuna Rice Salad and another for Oyster Chow Mein.

This company that two University of Michigan friends started moved and changed ownership becoming a division of Beatrice Foods in 1942. A few years later, it was taken over by Hunt Wesson; and both times La Choy grew and made more food products. Today, as a division of Con Agra, and they make more than fifty different foods, canned and frozen, that bear the La Choy name. And, since 1990, their bigger plant is now located in Omaha, Nebraska.

Now, La Choy produces a lot more than just bean sprouts. Their sister companies are larger and different, too. They include: Armour, Banquet, Chef Boyardee, Decker, Egg Beaters, Fleishman’s, Gulden’s, Healthy Choice, Inland Valley, Knott’s Berry Farm, Libby’s, Meridian, Orville Redenbacher’s, Peter Pan. Reddi Whip, Slim Jim, Texas Signature Foods, Van Camp’s, and Wolfgang Puck’s.

Some current La Choy products include Chicken Chow Mein, Pepper Oriental, Egg Rolls, Chop Suey Vegetables, Sweet & Sour Sauce, Shrimp Chow Mein, Chop Suey Vegetables, Water Chestnuts, Bamboo Shoots, Won Ton Soup, and Chinese Hot Mustard. And they make a soy sauce, with nary a soy bean in it. They are achieving one goal of the original founders, La Choy now offers a more complete line of Asian foods to both home cooks and food service operators.

The Misters New and Smith developed some long-term visions of what to do and how to go about it. They may not have dreamed of going from Detroit to Omaha, nor of becoming part of a conglomerate, but their idea of making lots of Chinese food for home and industry really paid off and took off. Their booklets educated consumers about what to do with their food products.

But their booklets did not tell other things about their company. For example, they did not advise that their soy sauce had no soy, or that their teriyaki sauce was not Chinese. They did not tell that their bean sprouts were grown hydroponically in just six days. They did not tell that in 1950 the company asked for and was granted permission to have government people continuously inspect their plant and products long before such inspections were required by law.

Clearly these two non-Chinese chaps, Smith and New, were ahead of their time making and touting Chinese foods.

Their ideas and products impacted and still have an impact on American thoughts and consumption of Chinese food. Their recipes, while not all Chinese, are representative of Chinese food’s early use and later growth and change in the United States. Their booklets and company handouts look at what people used to make with Chinese ingredients, in the United States, at least.

So while the intention may be there to use their water chestnuts in a stir fry, and while that same intention may not result in selection of La Choy’s particular product, chances are good that most who purchase canned or jarred products for Chinese food are purchasing a La Choy product. And it doesn’t stop there.

(Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, created a muppet character of the La Choy Dragon that was featured in a series of commercials featuring the La Choy products.)

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends…

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