Isee the Chinese New Year is upon us, and it makes me think what a shame there is no Chinese Christmas to go with it, and it also makes me think about Chun King Chow Mein.
Now, I don't normally think about Chun King Chow Mein. I like Chinese food, all right, but Chinese food and I have both come a long way since canned bean sprouts and gloppy celery. In fact, I don't think about Chun King Chow Mein at all unless I am thinking about Chinese New Year, and that is because Stan Freberg did a TV special on the subject in 1960. This was a seminal event, as they say. It put the Chinese New Year on the map.
"It was just going to be the Chinese New Year Show or something," Freberg recalled the other day from New York, where he was working on a singing commercial for IBM. "But Jeno Paulucci said I had to work the product name in one way or another, so we called it the Chun King Chow Mein Hour."
Well, that was pretty direct. America saw the show and immediately took the Chinese New Year to its famous heart. Even Paulucci, the fastest dreamer in Duluth, who turned $2,500 worth of bean sprouts into a $63-million canned chow mein business, says the holiday was virtually unknown outside San Francisco and New York before he and Freberg came along.
"It was a lot of fun," he said. "We went at it for a whole month every year. TV, ads, planes with streamers. It got so big, this Chinese paper in New York wrote an editorial that said, 'What are we doing to let this Italian run away with Chinese New Year's?' "
This article is supposed to be about Chinese New Year, so before I forget it I should mention that today we begin the Year of the Tiger, and according to the Chinese lunar calendar it is the year 4684. The celebration of the new year, Hsin Nien, takes four days, and it runs in a cycle of 12 years, all named after animals (in order): the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, the Pig, the Rat and the Ox.
Now, about Jeno Paulucci, he sold Chun King to R.J. Reynolds almost 20 years ago and went into Jeno's frozen pizza, sold that to Pillsbury and went into Florida real estate and built a city near Orlando named Heathrow, but not after the airport, he says.
"Jeno made capital gains an art form," said Freberg, who poses as an ad man but in actual fact is considered by some the father of modern American humor. "I came on as his ad consultant at the eleventh hour. We did all kinds of stuff. He bet me a rickshaw ride on La Cienega Boulevard it wouldn't work."
One of the things Freberg did was to put little handles on the Chun King cans so they would sort of remind you of those white cardboard boxes that everything comes in at a Chinese takeout. The American public never got over it. Sales went up 35 percent in four months.
Someone took a photo of Paulucci in his pin-triped suit and thin-soled businessman shoes pulling Freberg in a rickshaw down La Cienega Boulevard.
"I don't think Chun King has the fun we used to," Paulucci said.
Freberg's last word on the subject was this: "I wonder where the tobacco people think the future is going, that they're buying chow mein companies . . . "
My word, I haven't thought so much about chow mein in years. Maybe never. The original thing was chop suey, which I remember mainly as a neon sign. Ripley's "Believe It or Not" used to shock us with the information that chop suey was not Chinese at all but strictly American and you could travel all over China and never find any. I would see "CHOP SUEY" in neon down around Bleecker Street. Socially, it was on the same level as "EAT." (I once went into a place that said "EAT" when I was 15 and was in Schenectady for the state finals in the high school orchestra competition. I was the concertmaster at the time, and in the general euphoria of being in Schenectady I went in there with Denny Jones, the first clarinet, and Pop Shepherd, who played French horn. I forget what we ate. It could have been chop suey but was more likely a hot roast beef sandwich with khaki gravy.)
Come to think of it, I don't believe I ever have eaten chop suey. Chow mein was significantly more genteel than chop suey. It had more glop. You could see the celery and water chestnuts and bean sprouts quite plainly so you knew what you were getting, while chop suey was so pulverized it could be anything. Also, chow mein went better with fried noodles, those crisp little sticks you sprinkled over it.
Whatever became of fried noodles? Does anyone eat them anymore? What has happened to Chinese food?
The other day I drove to Cambridge, Md., home of the Chun King plant, and I found the plant all right, a no-nonsense white concrete block building 200 yards long, but it is now part of Del Monte, which itself is part of Reynolds, and the manager couldn't let me in until he phoned San Francisco. San Francisco said not to talk to me so I went off and had lunch at a Chinese place in a shopping plaza across the highway.
This was rather a nice restaurant called the Peking House. It made no pretense to being one of your haute cuisine Chinese places like Trader Vic's or Say Eng Look in New York or the ones like Sam Wo's in San Francisco that are so authentic you practically have to order in Chinese. Ask for chow mein in a place like that and the waiter slaps you on the back of the head with a menu.
No, you could get chow mein at Peking House, and probably chop suey if you insisted. But my point is that you could also get sweet and sour pork, beef with oyster sauce, shrimp and snow peas, almond duck, Peking duck, chicken with peanuts, butterfly shrimp, subgum this and egg foo that and mu shi pork, which is what I had and was very tasty even though the pancakes were a little bit tough and I had to make a special request for plum sauce.
Furthermore, though the only way you could tell from the menu was that certain items were marked "hot and spicy," we were being offered the food of several different provinces of China. Imagine. The world at our feet in a shopping plaza just down Rte. 50 from Cambridge, Md.
Chicken with peanuts: you don't even have to tell me that's hot and spicy, because I know it is Szechuan. There was a hot broccoli dish that I forgot to write down that I am sure is Hunan. And of course almond chicken is mainstream Mandarin, and so is the one (I seem to have written "No. 26" in my notes, which doesn't do me any good at all) with two kinds of mushroom and mustard leaves and lots of celery in gloppy sauce.
Hmmm. You sound familiar, No. 26.
All those years I thought I was eating chow mein . . . all that time it was actually Mandarin Chinese?
Another thing Chinese New Year reminds me of since this is the Year of the Tiger is tiger's milk, which is a powder for some reason. We bought a huge can of it once during the Cuban missile crisis and . . . wait a minute . . . don't cut me off . . . I'm not half finished here . .