How The Chow Mein Sandwich Claimed A Small Slice Of New England History

Jun 24, 2019
Originally published on June 24, 2019 5:33 pm

Imagine a sandwich that isn't so much a sandwich as it is a noodle dish, and you'd have what locals in Fall River, Mass., call the chow mein sandwich, a hybrid Chinese-American dish with roots in the city's factory worker past.

The chow mein sandwich is in some ways exactly how you would imagine it: a portion of fried chow mein noodles with brown gravy poured over it, served on a no-frills hamburger bun. The dish has been a specialty of Chinese restaurants in the area for decades.

"We have people come from New York or Chicago, and it's so funny. They will whisper to the server, 'Do you have those burger sandwiches?' I say 'You mean the chow mein sandwich? Yes, we do,'" says Regina Mark, co-owner of Fall River's Mee Sum restaurant, a place that's been making chow mein sandwiches for more than 50 years.

But the sandwich is more than just a local oddity. It's a piece of history that points to the city's patterns of immigration. The main reason for the sandwich's rise to popularity in the early 1900s was spurred by Fall River's factory worker population.

"Fall River [was] booming with factories, the textile industry, and mostly a lot of workers, that's why the chow mein sandwich sold," she says.

According to anthropology professor Imogene Lim, the sandwich originated from earlier waves of Chinese immigration to Fall River. Lim studied the sandwich for her dissertation at Brown University.

"Well let's put it this way, I consider myself the expert on the chow mein sandwich, and when I was studying it, my friends dubbed me 'the chow mein sandwich chick,' " she says.

Chinese immigrants first started arriving in Fall River in the late 1800s. Many were coming from the West Coast after having worked on the country's Transcontinental Railroad, but they were being pushed out by hostility surrounding the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers. They came to cities on the East Coast like Fall River, looking for business opportunities.

"Many Chinese ended up opening up laundries. Laundries did not require a lot of language expertise," Lim says. "And then there were tea shops in the back of laundries, and after a certain amount of time, you started getting restaurants."

But of course, the success of any restaurant was dependent on its ability to sell food. At the time, Fall River was a textile mill town mostly staffed by factory workers who had immigrated from Poland, Ireland and French Canada, and so Chinese restaurants tried to adapt.

"So again, if you're thinking [European] immigrant groups, what do they know about Chinese food? But they know something called a sandwich," Lim says. "A sandwich becomes something accessible to them as a way to ease in that notion of Chinese cuisine."

Chinese restaurant owners realized that if they put a hamburger bun on top, they could make an unfamiliar dish more approachable to the region's European immigrants. At the peak of its popularity, the chow mein sandwich's main draw was its accessibility. In a working-class city, the sandwich was filling, quickly made and cheap, costing just a nickel. In the end, Fall River's immigration created something that was neither Chinese, nor Irish, nor Polish nor French Canadian.

"The identity is American, but uniquely Fall River because of the mixture of populations in that locale," Lim says.

Back at Mee Sum, Mark demonstrates how a proper chow mein sandwich is made today. She dips Fall River's specialty chow mein noodles into a fryer, then tops them with the restaurant's special gravy and a healthy heaping of chicken, and finally pops the hamburger bun on top. This method ensures that the sandwich's noodles absorb just a little of the gravy, but not so much that it'll get soggy.

Dave Lussier grew up in Fall River and spent his childhood eating chow mein sandwiches with his family. He said it's the noodles in the sandwich that sets it apart. Ho-Mee noodles are bought specifically from Fall River's Oriental Chow Mein company, which was founded by Frederick Wong, a Chinese immigrant from Canton, China, in 1938. The Oriental Chow Mein company still exists today, and Lussier and other locals say it's those crispy, deep-fried noodles that are a large part of what makes a classic chow mein sandwich.

"So you get the special noodles, they give you a lot of chicken, it's delicious," Lussier says. "You know, it's kind of a joke that it's a sandwich because you can't pick it up." For a true Fall River touch, he says to top the sandwich with vinegar.

The dish is such a classic Fall River food that back in the 1970s, a band called Alika and the Happy Samoans even wrote a tribute song to the chow mein sandwich.

In the end, Mark says the sandwich may seem an odd creation by today's standards.

"Now we're laughing about the chow mein sandwich, right? But I mean that's our business. It put a lot of kids through college so they can find better jobs now, get themselves a better education," she says.

In many ways, it's the classic story of any immigrant reaching for the American dream.

This story comes to us from member station WCAI.

Copyright 2019 WCAI. To see more, visit WCAI.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Our next story is about a sort of sandwich that is also a noodle dish. Locals in Fall River, Mass., call it the chow mein sandwich. Sarah Mizes-Tan of member station WCAI takes a bite of this dish that smacks of the city's factory worker past.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, that's chicken chow mein.

REGINA MARK: OK, I'll...

SARAH MIZES-TAN, BYLINE: The chow mein sandwich is, in some ways, exactly how you would imagine it - a portion of fried chow mein noodles with gravy poured over it served on a simple, no-frills hamburger bun. The dish has been a specialty of Chinese restaurants in the area for decades.

MARK: We have people come from New York, Chicago. And it's so funny. They will whisper to the server to say, do you have those burger sandwich? I say, you mean the chow mein sandwich? I say yes, we do.

MIZES-TAN: That's Regina Mark, the co-owner of Mee Sum Restaurant in Fall River, a place that's been making chow mein sandwiches for over 50 years. She says the sandwich's popularity was due in large part because of the city's factory worker population in the early 1900s.

MARK: Fall River is very booming with factory, textile industry. And mostly a lot of worker. That's why chow mein sandwich sell over here.

MIZES-TAN: When Chinese immigrants first started arriving in Fall River in the late 1800s, many were coming from the West Coast, pushed out by hostility caused by the Chinese Exclusion Act. They opened restaurants. But in a town that was mostly factory workers from Ireland and Poland, Chinese restaurants had to adapt.

Imogene Lim is a professor at Vancouver Island University who studied the sandwich for her anthropology dissertation.

IMOGENE LIM: If you're thinking, immigrant groups, what do they know about Chinese food? But they know something called a sandwich. So a sandwich becomes something accessible to them as a way to ease in that notion of Chinese cuisine.

MIZES-TAN: Chinese restaurant owners realized that if they put a hamburger bun on top, they could make an unfamiliar dish seem more approachable to European immigrants. The result is that Fall River immigration created a sandwich that's neither Chinese nor Irish or Polish. It's American.

Back at Mee Sum, Regina Mark shows me first how to prepare the noodles for a proper chow mein sandwich.

MARK: Because we like to keep it nice and hot, we dip it in the fryer.

MIZES-TAN: She piles hot noodles and chicken on a bun, and then it's ready for the gravy.

MARK: See how we pour it on? And then we come over here for the gravy. Put a bun over here. All right, I want you to try it.

MIZES-TAN: OK, and that's it?

MARK: That's it.

MIZES-TAN: I use a fork and take a bite. The noodles have just the right amount of crunch, and the restaurant's secret gravy recipe offers a nice counterpoint to the crispy noodles. It's a warm and comforting sandwich. Dave Lussier grew up eating chow mein sandwiches with his family in Fall River, and he says it's the noodles that set them apart.

DAVE LUSSIER: You get special noodles. They give you a lot of chicken. It's delicious. You know, it's kind of a joke that it's a sandwich because you can't pick it up.

MIZES-TAN: He adds that for a true Fall River touch, you can top it off with vinegar. The dish is such a classic Fall River food that back in the 1970s, a band called Alika and the Happy Samoans even wrote a song about it in tribute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOW MEIN SANDWICH (CHINA ROYAL SPECIAL)")

ALIKA AND THE HAPPY SAMOANS: (Singing) Chow mein sandwich.

MIZES-TAN: In the end, Regina Mark says the sandwich may seem an odd creation by today's standards.

MARK: And now we laughing about chow mein sandwich. But, I mean, that's our business. It put a lot of kid through college so they can find a better job now, get them some better education.

MIZES-TAN: In many ways, it's the classic story of any immigrant reaching for the American dream. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Mizes-Tan in Fall River, Mass. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.