Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Great Chow Mein Famine of ‘09

When I was a student at South School in Somerset, Massachusetts, we engaged in a daily ritual that we imagined common to children across the United States. In the lunch line, we placed on our trays a plastic knife and spork, a carton of coffee milk, a giant sticky roll for dessert and, if we were lucky, a chow mein sandwich.

The woman working the line would give you a styrofoam tray with distinct sections (only on chow-mein-sandwich day were we treated to styrofoam) filled with brown sauce, two slices of white bread, and a brown wax-paper bag full of crispy fried noodles.

Chow-mein-sandwich day was the most important day of the week. I preferred to axe the gravy and the white bread and just eat the noodles out of the bag. But I can still remember the grin on the face of one of my classmates, a sweet kid named Tony who spoke English with a slight Portuguese accent, as he gently rushed his chow mein sandwich to his seat in the cafegymatorium.

What chicken tikka masala is to London or bagels are to New York City, the chow mein sandwich is to greater Fall River.

Yet for much of 2009 the world, or the world that is southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, has been deprived of chow mein sandwiches.

In June fire struck the Oriental Chow Mein Company, founded by Frederick Wong. For decades, this Fall River business has supplied local schools, restaurants, and stores with its distinctive, crunchy chow mein noodles. As of mid November the Wong family, which still owns the company, was trying to re-open at the same time that it warded off incessant phone calls with demands for noodles. Since the 1930s the sandwich has been listed on the menus of both Chinese and American restaurants and the Oriental Chow Mein Company has been and remains the region’s sole noodle distributor.

Could chow mein sandwiches become a bygone food?

If you have missed Emeril Lagasse’s expressions of love for chow mein sandwiches or did not grow up with him in Fall River, you might not know what a chow mein sandwich looks like or how to make one yourself. It’s not pretty, but it is tasty. Basically, it consists of crispy fried noodles covered in a brown sauce, which likely contains pork and only sometimes celery and other vegetables, placed on a hamburger roll or between two slices of square white bread. You may order it unstrained, with celery and other vegetables, or strained, without celery and other vegetables.

You can also, or once could, make it at home with the packaged version that the Oriental Chow Mein Company has distributed to grocery stores. Coveted boxes of Hoo-Mee Chow Mein are rumored to be selling for upwards of fifty dollars each since the fire.

The box, while reproduced until recently, is obviously of an earlier era; it contains a message explaining that Hoo-Mee Chow Mein is best made by housewives. Perhaps this marketing strategy helped to bring what was once an “exotic” food served outside the home into local kitchens.

But why chow mein sandwiches and why Fall River?

Fall River was once booming with textile factories and immigrants from Ireland, England, and Quebec to fill them. The story goes that chow mein sandwiches took off during the Great Depression of the 1930s, because a sandwich was cheaper to buy than a full portion of chow mein. Order a sandwich and you purchased less chow mein, but you at least had the bread to fill you.

The Depression hit Fall River hard and it never really recovered. I do not know if it can withstand the loss of chow mein sandwiches.

The chow mein sandwiches made possible by the Oriental Chow Mein Company are a testament to southeastern Massachusetts’ unique population and immigration history. Chinese-immigrant cooks, no matter where they settled, tailored their foods to the pre-existing culinary propensities of customers. The brown sauce of the chow mein sandwich reflects the tastes of Fall River’s established Yankee, Irish, and English populations of the 1920s and 1930s. The sauce and its contents are cooked for a long period of time or boiled, producing soft vegetables. Given the popularity of boiled foods in New England and among British and Irish immigrants, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese-American cooks like those in the Wong family probably tailored the sauce to their expectations. This, I venture, helps to explain why the soupy sandwich took off in Fall River in particular.

It remains beloved by many, including those of French-Canadian descent.

I would love to know what exactly happened when someone first asked a Chinese-American cook (Frederick Wong?) for a chow mein sandwich. Or did the cook take the initiative in first offering it to customers?

Most of all, I wonder, was that moment strained or unstrained?


  1. The Oriental Chow Mein Company is back in business. The Great Chow Mein Famine of '09 is officially over.

  2. Just found your blog - LOVE IT!! Originally from Taunton, I've been in Colorado for 16 years. Just ate a chow mein sandwich (UNstrained) for lunch (my MIL sent out some good ole Hoo-Mee. What can I say, she loves me).