New York Times columnist Mark Bittman and restaurateur Danny Meyer discuss John Sloan's painting Chinese Restaurant, on view in the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915.
Carrie Rebora Barratt: Hello, I'm Carrie Rebora Barratt. My colleague Barbara Weinberg and I are co-curators of the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The exhibition includes more than one hundred iconic works by many of America's most acclaimed artists, who tell stories about their own times by depicting ordinary people engaged in the tasks and pleasures of everyday life. The paintings range in date from the Revolutionary era to the eve of World War I.
Artist John Sloan wrote in his diary in February 1909: "Felt restless so went to the Chinese restaurant and was glad I did for I saw a strikingly gotten up girl with dashing red feathers in her hat playing with the restaurant's fat cat. It would be a good thing to paint." Working from memory, he created this canvas, Chinese Restaurant. Its central character is perhaps a woman of easy virtue, judging from her flamboyant attire and heavy makeup. But Sloan's attitude is not one of reproach. With light-hearted acceptance, he depicts the woman's droll performance as she feeds the cat while her slovenly companion feeds himself and two men look on with amusement.
We asked restaurateur Danny Meyer and New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman to talk about the now familiar institution of the neighborhood Chinese restaurant.
Here is Mark Bittman.
Mark Bittman: Well, let me say first that the Chinese Restaurant is the painting in this collection that makes me the most jealous, because this is where I want to be. I mean, it's funky. You've got a cat. You've got possibly a prostitute. You've got tables that are certainly not luxurious. But at the same time, you have paintings and they're colorful and pretty on the walls. And you've got bright colors everywhere, and you've got plenty of room, and you've got a convivial atmosphere. This is a place I want to eat.
This does not remind me of any favorite haunts in Manhattan, because there's almost no place that looks like this anymore. When I was a kid, there were still places that looked like this. But if there were a place that looked anything like this now, it would have eight tables in the space of these two, and sixteen people sitting at them in the space of these four. So part of what I like about this is just how relaxed and roomy and pleasant and friendly the whole thing seems.
The Chinese started coming to the United States in the eighteenth century. But in the nineteenth century, of course, they came in much greater numbers, and Chinatown was established. And it was always an exotic place, but one that non-Chinese went to, mostly to eat, as these people are doing here, and mostly to eat cheap, as people have done since Chinese restaurants were established. So this is another American tradition, and not exclusively a New York tradition, but certainly one that's known as a New York tradition, that's been around for a couple hundred years now.
I'm almost sure they're eating noodles, because they're eating out of bowls. One guy's drinking tea. The guy who's smoking a cigarette is drinking tea. There's a bottle of what might be soy sauce. It looks a little light, but it could be vinegar—soy sauce or vinegar on the table. The guy on the far left is using chopsticks to eat noodles. And it looks like the guy on the far right is too. It's what would now be called a noodle bar, but they were probably paying a dime for these bowls of noodles 150 years ago.
Carrie Rebora Barratt: The subject of John Sloan's painting highlights a trend in turn-of-the-century New York—the proliferation of ethnic eateries—that extended New York's dining culture beyond private homes, clubs, and exclusive establishments. The many underlying reasons for this include the period's growing middle class, new employment opportunities for women, and the influx of immigrants.
Here is Danny Meyer.
Danny Meyer: New York has always been this wonderful magnet for groups from other countries who want to come here to make it big. It's been a classic portal to the United States and if the United States is remarkable at melding cultures, New York is certainly the apex of that. And for years and years and years, those ethnic restaurants have certainly been a great place for people to launch their lives in the city, either by owning them or working in them.
And, generally, they are connected to marketplaces where foods are available at reasonably low rates, so that generally not only are there a lot of whatever ethnic restaurant we're talking about grouped together—because they're generally in the same neighborhoods where the new ethnic arrivals live—but they tend to be very, very good dining values as well.
And what's happened, certainly over the hundred years or so since this painting was made, is that chefs who have been really, really well trained regardless of their ethnicity have learned to adapt and adopt cooking styles from many ethnicities. It used to be, a hundred years ago, that a highly trained chef would only cook from the French tradition. And then we added other traditions, whether they be German or Italian.
And nowadays, a really excellent chef who's cooking in New York—or really anywhere in America—needs to understand Indian influences, Chinese influences, other Asian influences, Latin American influences. And so, in addition to having the ethnic version of a Chinese restaurant, we now have Chinese cooking technique and ingredients and flavors infusing restaurants of every stripe.
Carrie Rebora Barratt: Chinese Restaurant, along with the rest of the paintings in the exhibition, can be viewed online at metmuseum.org in the special feature for American Stories. There, as on the Audio Guide program in the exhibition galleries, you can also hear a range of perspectives by Barbara Weinberg and me, as well as artists, historians, and other experts from a variety of fields.
The exhibition is made possible by Alamo Rent A Car, The Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.
It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
The Audio Guide is sponsored by Bloomberg.
American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 12, 2009, through January 24, 2010.