Today, with the popularity and ubiquity of Chinese restaurants of many types, it is hard to realize that America initially was not attracted to eating in Chinese restaurants.  The dishes were markedly different from Western foods and Chinatowns were often dangerous places in run down parts of town so it was mainly Chinese who patronized Chinese restaurants. Besides, there were rumors that Chinese ate dogs as well as strange things.

             

In 1878 Benjamin Taylor was unimpressed with his meal in San Francisco’s Chinatown: 
“Pale cakes with a waxen look, full of meats, are brought out. They are sausages in disguise. Then more cakes full of seeds as a fig. Then giblets of you-never-know-what, maybe gizzards, possibly livers, perhaps toes. …”

Several decades later Alice A. Harrison wrote this scathing indictment of Chinese food:

“The man of timorous spirit or sensitive stomach who survives the ordeal of a Chinese dinner should be awarded a chopstick badge for courage… . It may be water chestnut Chop Suey, as the bill of fare declares it is. Then again it may be, as the taste swears it is, a few old shoes, brass buttons and a wornout pipe. At any rate it swims about in a bedragoned bowl, and you eat it if you can.”

To counter these derogatory views,  some white food writers in the early 20th century worked to inform or "educate" the public about aspects of Chinese restaurant food with newspaper articles and books to allay their fears.   Harriet Quimby, a journalist, in 1909 noted:

"The Chinaman, it must be admitted, knows how to cook, and he cooks with such skill that the peculiar mingling of flavors in which he delights pleases the Occidental as well as the Oriental palate...   The attractive thing about a dinner in the Chinese quarter of New York is its novelty, tables of teakwood, richly inlaid with pearl, are coverless. The china used is of odd design and still more odd decoration, and the entire place, in its foreign atmosphere, is a departure from the every-day restaurant. 

The lengthy menu is: ..

"profusely decorated with pictures of chickens, ducks, lobsters, and fishes, so that, if one cannot master the mysterious pidgin-English, he can at least point with some degree of intelligence to what he wants—will be handed around by a soft-footed Chinese waiter." 

She cautioned to "Occidentals" however that: 
"The menu that will invariably appeal to Occidental tastes in a Chinese restaurant consists of pineapple chicken, fried noodles, chicken with mushrooms and bamboo shoots, an herb omelet, and rice, followed by preserved cumquats, ginger, lychee nuts, Chinese nuts, candies, and cakes."

And she advised that it is difficult to get chefs to share recipes because, 

 "like chefs the world over, the Chinese chef thinks there is safety in silence; so he innocently answers, “No sabe,” and that settles the question as far as he is concerned." 

Quimby's attitude is definitely more positive toward Chinese restaurants than the earlier writers, but still evokes the feeling that the Occidental diner should probably stick with certain "safe" dishes on the menu.  Even in current times, there is some the implication that who knows what is really in Chinese food, as illustrated by humorist and food writer Calvin Trillin's quip below:



Was Trillin really serious or just being flippant? Either way, his one-liner serves to perpetuate a long standing suspicion of what ingredients are in Chinese food? For example, could they be serving dogs and cats?

In 2006, Trillin got considerable criticism for a different reason when he published a poem, Have They Run out of Province Yet?," in New Yorker magazine that spoke to the seemingly endless arrival of new Chinese cuisines from provinces other than Guangdong, the source of Cantonese, the first Chinese cuisine to come to America. He met with considerable criticism that he was demeaning Chinese, but he maintained his poem was a parody of foodies who were obsessed with seeking new eating experiences