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The Delicious History of America's Oldest Chinese-American Restaurant

Behind every Chinese-American restaurant is a tale of assimilation, innovation, and survival—but the Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, Montana has a particularly storied past. Founded by immigrants in 1911, it claims to be the oldest continuously operating eatery of its kind in the United States. Now, the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in Brooklyn is featuring the eatery in its new exhibit, "Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant," which looks at how Chinese food in the U.S. evolved into the ubiquitous cuisine we know and love today.

The Pekin Noodle Parlor is tucked inside a brick building on Uptown Butte’s historic Main Street. Suspended over the restaurant’s storefront is a neon sign that reads “CHOP SUEY,” and inside, a steep set of stairs leads visitors to a narrow, second-floor room lined with cozy curtained dining booths divided by orange beadboard partitions.

Jerry Tam

Jerry Tam

On the restaurant’s ground floor—which in previous incarnations served as a gambling hall and an herbal medicine dispensary—you’ll find relics from the building’s past: old bottles of soy sauce, vintage Chinese gambling equipment, kitchen equipment, and tin containers and drawers filled with herbs and teas. As for food, patrons can order chop suey and Szechuan, Cantonese, and Burmese-style dishes off a menu that’s remained largely unchanged for more than a century.

The Pekin Noodle Parlor is a family affair. Danny Wong, an 82-year-old immigrant, has owned and operated the restaurant since the early 1950s, and his son, Jerry Tam, assists him in its day-to-day operations. Wong—whose Chinese name is Ding Tam—purchased the business from its founder, his great-uncle Hum Yow.

If it seems strange that the nation’s oldest functioning Chinese restaurant is in Montana, chalk it up to 19th century immigration patterns. Between 1850 and 1900, around 250,000 Chinese people came to the United States. Many of them were fleeing political strife, poverty, and famine; others were lured by the 1849 Gold Rush. Montana Territory was a mining mecca, and thousands of Chinese immigrants flocked there looking for work. By 1870, nearly 10 percent of Montana’s population was Chinese-American.

Eventually, gold reserves dwindled and animosity from white miners grew, so Chinese immigrants then found new jobs building America’s first transcontinental railroad. Once the railroad was completed in 1869, they gained new livelihoods as entrepreneurs, founding small businesses like laundries, groceries, farms, and—yes—Chinese-American restaurants.

According to historians at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, Wong can trace his family’s history in America back to the 1860s. A distant relative, whose name has been lost, delivered supplies to Chinese camps and communities across the American West. By the late 1890s, that family member’s son had arrived in Butte, an area home to Montana's largest Chinese community at the time, where he helped run a laundry business.

More Tams arrived in Butte, and two men from the family—Wong’s great-uncle, Hum Yow, and his grandfather Tam Kwong Yee—went into business together. They opened a Chinese mercantile on the east edge of the city's Chinatown. By 1911, its top floor had been transformed into the Pekin Noodle Parlor, and the first floor was home to a gambling club, and later, an herbal shop. These businesses eventually closed, but the Pekin Noodle Parlor remained.

In 1947, Tam Kwong Yee’s grandson, Danny Wong, emigrated from China to America and found a job at the Pekin Noodle Parlor. When Hum Yow retired from the restaurant business, Wong purchased it and ran the establishment for more than six decades with his wife, Sharon Chu. Chu passed away in late 2014, and today, Jerry Wong helps his father run the business.

Pekin Noodle Parlor isn’t the first documented Chinese-American restaurant in the United States. (That honor goes to Canton Restaurant, which opened in San Francisco in 1849.) However, it’s the oldest one still running today—and aside from a fresh coat of paint here or a minor remodel there, it contains all of its original furnishing, including the chairs, tables, and dishes.

Jerry Tam thinks the secret to the restaurant’s longevity is its classic Chinese-American menu, which includes dishes like chow mein, chop suey, and egg foo young. “People enjoy the food,” Wong told mental_floss. “It’s comfort food; it’s very familiar.” (For a long time, the Pekin Noodle Parlor also served American diner food.)

Emma Boast, MOFAD's program director and curator of the "Chow" exhibit, has another theory for why the Pekin Noodle Parlor’s menu is so popular with patrons.

“In bigger cities on the East coast and the West coast, this kind of food really fell out of fashion after World War II,” Boast told mental_floss. “Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s—and certainly today—in places like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, [there are] new Chinese-Americans coming over and bringing their food from various regions within China with them, and starting their own businesses for their own communities. That’s not necessarily happening in Montana, so I think there’s maybe more of a market there for that kind of classic Chinese-American food.”

Wong’s local celebrity also plays a part. “He’s very well known, because the restaurant has been there for so long,” Boast says.

Plus, colorful rumors about the Pekin Noodle Parlor’s past add to the restaurant’s intrigue. The establishment is close to Butte’s old red light district, and it’s surrounded by miles of underground tunnels. Legend has it that these passages were once used to illegally transport drugs, while others say that the Pekin Noodle Parlor also operated as a brothel. However, Montana historians say there’s no truth to these tales. According to them, the tunnels were built to provide buildings with steam heat, and they occasionally served as a delivery conduit.

Today, few Chinese-Americans still live in Butte—or for that matter, Montana. During the early 20th century, immigrants left the state due to discriminatory laws, boycotts against Chinese-American businesses, and racism. They moved to Chinatowns in larger cities, or to other cities that offered safety and economic opportunity. Chinese-Americans in Butte fought back against prejudiced practices and policies, but their population also dwindled in number. Today, fewer than one percent of the city's residents are Asian.

Miraculously, the Pekin Noodle Parlor survived, and in 2011, the business celebrated its 100th birthday (Jerry Tam cooked dinner for the whole town). To commemorate the occasion, the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives organized an exhibit, "One Family—One Hundred Years," dedicated to the Tam family’s history and Butte's Chinese-American legacy. On display was an assortment of antique relics—including a cash register, a chopping block, gambling equipment, shipping containers, and more—salvaged from the Pekin Noodle Parlor’s basement and ground-level storefront.

As for MOFAD's exhibit, it showcases a replica of the Pekin Noodle Parlor's famous neon sign, along with an original china place setting, a Cantonese-style wok, and an assortment of shipping materials once used to transport ingredients. Visitors can also view 150 years' worth of Chinese-American restaurant menus, a working fortune cookie machine, and relics from restaurants across the U.S.

When asked about the Pekin Noodle Parlor's future, Tam says he will continue to help his father run the restaurant "until he decides to do otherwise.” As for now, he’s trying to certify the restaurant’s claim to fame as America’s oldest Chinese-American restaurant, in hopes of receiving a Guinness World Record. “If you look at the underpinnings of our restaurant, it’s a fascinating story,” Tam says. “It’s a fascinating business.”

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Food
11 Things You Might Not Have Known About Garlic
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National Garlic Day may be a holiday best celebrated alone—or with a hefty box of breath mints and a very charitable loved one—but few foods are as deserving of their very own day of recognition as the amazing, edible bulbous plant (okay, “bulbous plant” might not sound super appetizing, but it’s certainly accurate). Celebrate National Garlic Day on April 19 with your favorite garlic-laced meal and a few fun facts about this delicious, flavor-packed add-in that can do almost anything, from reducing your cholesterol to keeping vampires at bay.

1. YOU CAN EAT MORE THAN JUST THE STANDARD GARLIC CLOVE.

When you think “garlic,” you inevitably picture garlic cloves, but despite the ubiquity of that particular image of the plant, it’s not the only part you can eat. Hard-neck varieties of garlic produce “scapes,” green shoots that can be especially delicious and tender when they’re young. Think of them as garlic-flavored scallions. They also make a wonderful addition to pestos, soups, and butters.

2. CHINA PRODUCES THE MOST GARLIC.

Garlic is native to central Asia and has long popped up in European and African cooking, too. But it's China that currently holds the record for most garlic grown. Per a 2012 study, China grows a staggering two-thirds of the world’s garlic, believed to be around 46 billion pounds per year.

3. AVERAGE CONSUMPTION OF GARLIC IS BELIEVED TO WEIGH IN AT AROUND TWO POUNDS PER PERSON.

Even with just two pounds, that means eating roughly 302 cloves per person per year, as each clove typically weighs about three grams.

4. GARLIC'S HEALTH BENEFITS ARE MYRIAD, INCLUDING AN ABILITY TO REDUCE CHOLESTEROL.

The best way to release the health-happy power of garlic is to cut it, which then turns garlic’s thio-sulfinite compounds into allicin, an antibiotic and antifungal that is believed to reduce “bad” cholesterol, as it inhibits enzymes from growing in liver cells.

5. ALLICIN IS ALSO GOOD AT COMBATING HEART DISEASE.

Allicin helps nitric oxide release in the blood vessels, relaxing them and thus bringing about a drop in blood pressure. Keeping blood vessels relaxed and lowering blood pressure is good for the heart and the rest of the vascular system (and it’s tasty).

6. GARLIC CONTAINS TONS OF VITAMINS, MINERALS, AND ANTIOXIDANTS THAT ARE GOOD FOR YOU, TOO.

The bulbs are packed with potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, selenium, beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, and Vitamin C.

7. GARLIC'S USE AS A HEALTH AID DATES BACK TO ANCIENT HISTORY.

It’s believed that Egyptian pharaohs plied their pyramid-builders with garlic for strength, and an ancient Egyptian medical document—the Ebers Papyrus—counts a stunning 22 different medicinal uses for the plant. Garlic also pops up in texts from Virgil, Pliny the Elder, Chaucer, and Galen, all of which detail its various uses and share lore about the magic plant.

8. DESPITE ITS ASIAN ORIGINS, ITS NAME IS DERIVED FROM ANGLO-SAXON SPEECH.

A combination of two Anglo-Saxon words—“gar” (spear) and “lac” (plant)—is believed to be the source of the plant’s name, specifically in reference to the shape of its leaves.

9. GARLIC'S REAL HEALTH BENEFITS ARE PROBABLY THE REASON FOR ONE OF ITS MOST PREVALENT MYTHS.

Garlic had long been recognized as a wonderful health aid before writer Bram Stoker introduced the concept of the vampire—a beast repelled by garlic—to the public with his 1897 novel Dracula. In the book, Van Helsing uses garlic as a protective agent, and it’s believed that Stoker lifted that idea from garlic’s many medicinal purposes, particularly as a mosquito repellent (think of the blood-sucking).

10. YOU CAN USE GARLIC TO MAKE GLUE.

The sticky juice that’s in garlic cloves is often used as an adhesive, especially for delicate projects that involve fragile items like glass. You just need to crush the cloves to get to the sticky stuff which, despite its smell, works surprisingly well as a bonding agent for smaller jobs.

11. GARLIC CAN CLEAR UP SKIN TROUBLES.

You can battle both acne and cold sores with garlic, simply by slicing cloves in half and applying them directly to the skin. Hold for a bit—as long as you can stand!—and while the smell might not be the best, the antibacterial properties of the miracle plant will speed along the healing process.

All images courtesy of iStock.

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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