I first encountered Minnesota-style chow mein in 1974 at a Chinese restaurant, long defunct, in downtown Minneapolis. I had newly arrived from Seattle, where chow mein, prepared with fresh vegetables and cooked to order, was a popular dish. Imagine my astonishment at the dish that was set before me -- a green slurry of celery and ground pork topped with ribbons of gray processed chicken.
I wanted to file a police report. I thought a crime had been committed.
Only later did I discover the special place that this delicacy has in Minnesotans' hearts. Or stomachs. "When I was growing up, most families did not go out to eat, and when they did, it was for chow mein," Karen Jacobson of Minneapolis recalled recently in the employee newsletter for Lerner Publications Co. of Minneapolis.
"My mom made it, or she would take out from the Nankin and bring it home on the streetcar, but best of all was if we went shopping, we would have lunch at the Nankin. . . . I was in high school before I realized that there were restaurants that served something other than chow mein."
Eugene Shea, now an employment counselor in Chicago, had a Minneapolis Tribune delivery route in the mid-1930s. On Saturdays, he would collect from his customers, pay for his papers at the newspaper office downtown, and then, if he had 20 cents left over, he would head over to the Mun Hing Cafe at 7th and Hennepin for a plate of chow mein and a cup of tea.
He still remembers that when he placed his order at the cafeteria counter, an elderly Chinese man would shout, "one special," and five minutes later a plate of chow mein would come up on the dumbwaiter from the basement kitchen.
One of the most successful of the chow mein chains was Rogers Chow Mein, founded in 1947 by Roger Larson, who had been a cook in the Navy, and Harlow Richardson, a former chow mein delivery boy for the Port Arthur Cafe. They perfected their recipe with the help of Richardson's Danish mother, Anna. By the late '50s, their chain of chow mein shops grew to 25 -- "sort of like Leeann Chin now," recalled Harlow Richardson's brother Dick, now president of Rogers' parent company, Serv Quik Foods.
When the rising popularity of pizza and fried chicken began to eclipse chow mein, the Serv Quik company made the transition to the frozen food business, and today Rogers Chow Mein can be found in 300 supermarkets throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. The last of the 25 Rogers' carryout shops closed about five years ago, but Rogers Chow Mein is still going strong. And Dick Richardson reports that he ships cases of frozen chow mein every year to homesick Minnesotans in California, Florida, Texas and Nevada.
Hennepin County District Judge Tony Leung estimates that it took 50,000 servings of chow mein to put him through Yale University, and another 40,000 portions to finance his legal education at New York University.
Leung arrived in Minnesota with his brothers, sister and parents Victor and Carol in 1967, recent immigrants from Hong Kong. Like many other Chinese immigrants, Victor Leung found his first employment in the kitchen of the Nankin. Within a few years, Victor and Carol bought their own chow mein restaurant, the Canton in Burnsville.
Leung often helped his father prepare giant batches of chow mein, and he still remembers the recipe: Take one large ladle of lard, and melt it in a very large wok. Add a quart of ground pork, brown well, and then stir in a five gallon bucket of chopped celery. Thicken with cornstarch (dissolved in water), and season with salt, pepper and MSG. Makes approximately 40 servings.
"For whatever reason," says Leung, "I like it. I don't think anyone else in my family eats it."