Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment


*Direct all correspondence to Shun Lu and Gary Alan Fine, Department of Sociology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602.


Ethnic entrepreneurs in American society often carve out an economic niche by means of business enterprises and cultural events that are open to the general public and showcase ethnic culture. These locations depend upon a display of the ethnic culture that is simultneously seen as “authentic” and within the bounds of cultural expectations (“Americaized”). In a society that values toleration and cross-cultural contacts, many consumers desire a unique, yet comfortable experience, given their own cultural preferences. We focus on the presentation of ethnic food in four Chinese restarants in a small southern city. Ethnic tradition continues but in the context of a continuous process of adaptation. Authenticity is not an objective criterion but is socially constructed and linked to expectations. We contrast two broad classes of Chinese restarants—consumption-oriented and connoisseur-oriented—to describe strategies by which restaurateurs fit Chinese food into market niches. We conclude by suggesting some directions for the study of public ethnic culture.