This semester two of the CAP undergrad interns are re-examining bottles recovered from the Brody Hall/Emmons Amphitheater area. Way back in 2009 and 2011 construction around the dorms revealed many historic bottles. That’s because, as Mari pointed out in her last post, the dormitory complex is built above the old East Lansing city landfill. One bottle from the Emmons Amphitheater area caught my attention. This brown octagonal bottle was embossed “Oriental Show-You”, a early 20th century soy sauce. Show-You is a play on the Japanese word for soy sauce; shoyu (醤油).
Today soy sauce is common place in many American refrigerators, sitting right along side our ketchup and mustard. Although soy products are varied and plentiful today, soy sauce is the best known product made from the soy bean. However, to begin to understand how soy sauce became an everyday product in America (or how to unfold how a soy sauce bottle may have come to East Lansing in the 1920s), it’s necessary to take a step back and talk about Chinese cuisine. Now you might be thinking, but wait you just said that the soy sauce company name was based on a Japanese word, why are we talking about Chinese food? Well, to begin to understand soy sauce, you need to think about Chop Suey.
Japanese food/restaurants are common parts of the American palate today. You can go to most any larger grocery store and buy prepared sushi. Packaged ramen is a mainstay of the American college student diet and budget (last year the U.S. consumed over 4 billion servings of instant noodles). However, Japanese food didn’t gain widespread popularity in the U.S. until the 1980s.
Chinese cuisine, however, gained its foothold at the turn of the 20th century with the emergency of Chop Suey joints. Chop Suey is composed of celery, bean sprouts, and meat simmered in a tasty brown sauce and served over rice. Although its exact origin is clouded in mystery (stories have Chinese chefs in both San Francisco and New York inventing it), the dishes’ popularity quickly grew and the fad spread across the country. Like many popular Chinese dishes in the United States, this particular dish wasn’t actually Chinese. However, adaptation of Chinese cooking to American palates was crucial in the proliferation and popularization of Chinese cuisine in the U.S., and it worked! Today, according to the Chinese American Restaurant Association, there are over 45,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. (time.com).
In 1918 the Oriental Show-You Company was founded in Detroit by Shinzo Ohki, a recent immigrant from Japan. The company began by importing shoyu (soy sauce) and tea from China. In 1922 Mr. Ohki traveled back to Japan to learn the traditional natural fermentation method of making shoyu. After returning to the U.S. (later that year) he moved his business to Columbia City, Indiana. By 1924 he was bottling his own brand of shoyu, along with canned mung bean sprouts, chow mein noodles, chop suey, and Jigg’s corn beef and cabbage (Shurtleff & Aoyago 2012). The company was making 12,000 gallons of shoyu a year, which was mostly sold in the Midwest and only east of the Mississippi River (Yates 1998:775). At it’s peak the company was making 30,000 gallons of soy sauce per year. The factory closed in the early 1960s when the company was acquired by Beatrice Food Inc, later becoming a part of La Choy food products. (Shurtleff & Aoyago 2012).
Oriental Show-You sauce wasn’t originally marketed as soy sauce, because the average American consumer didn’t know what soy sauce was at the time. It was marketed both as chop suey sauce, and a sauce that could be used in many American dishes. Although we at CAP agree, we’re not sure how well soy sauce worked in fruit salad.
We don’t have a precise date on our bottle, but it’s likely from 1919-1929 since it has an Owen’s machine production suction scar (SHA). So, what does the presence of this bottle tell us about life in East Lansing at this time? Although the Oriental Show-You company was sold mostly in Asian grocery stores (Shurtleff & Akkiko 2012), it was also being marketed to American oriented grocery stores and housewives. So although cooking Chinese cuisine at home didn’t become common in most American kitchens until the 1950s (Mendelson 2016), it’s possible that this bottle originated from many different types of households. Either way, this bottle is an interesting peak into the Americanization of international cuisine, and life in early 20th century East Lansing.
History of Soy Sauce – 160 CE – 2012 compiled by William Shurtleff & Akkiko Aoyago Soyinfo Center 2012
Yates, Ronald 1998 History of Oriental Show-You Co. in Columbia City, Indiana in The Kikkoman Chronics.
Mendelson, Anne. 2016 Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey.