Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Peking Duck: A History in the Local Region & Chinatown

That crispy skin! Who can resist its taste and texture? It might be the most popular element of Peking Duck, a Chinese dish of roasted duck. It can be found in a number of restaurants in Chinatown, although the version at China King might be the most famous and popular, and which can be seen in the above photograph. 

What is the history of Peking Duck in the U.S.? When did the first Chinese restaurant in Boston serve Peking Duck?

During the 19th century, nearly all U.S. newspaper references to Peking Duck referred to the breed and not the dish. This breed was introduced into the U.S. during the 1870s and quickly became very desired, eventually being used to create a new breed, the American Pekin or White Pekin.

The San Francisco Bulletin, January 12, 1885, noted, “Ever since its first introduction into the United States, the Peking Duck has steadily gained in popularity until now it takes a front rank among desirable breeds.” These ducks were described as “…pure white, hardy, vigorous and prolific.” The Abbeville Press & Banner (SC), July 31, 1889, also mentioned that, “Most breeders says that the ‘Pekin’ duck, a bird of Chinese origin, is the most desirable for all purposes. It is hardy, matures early, and weighs from fourteen to twenty pounds to the pair.”

One of the first references to Peking Duck as a dish was in an article titled What Chinese Eat, and which was printed in several newspapers in 1900. Maybe the first of those newspapers was the Kenosha News (WI), September 20, 1900. The article stated that, “Poultry is also one of the strong points of Chinese farming and cooking. The Peking ducks are celebrated throughout the empire for their size and delicacy, and the preparation of their flesh is one of the finest evidences of Chinese skill in cookery.” The article continued, “If one of my American readers cares to try a duck a la Chinoise, here is the recipe,” which you can see above.

The first reference I found for a U.S. restaurant specially serving Peking Duck was in the Press & Sun-Bulletin (NY), December 24, 1919, which had an advertisement for the Victory Restaurant, which served Chinese & American cuisine. One of their Christmas dinner specials was Roast Peking Duck, with Stuffing, for $1.00. 

However, one of the first Mandarin restaurants in the U.S. was the Mandarin Inn Cafe in Chicago, which opened in 1911. I haven't been able to confirm that they served Peking Duck although it seems probably as they specialized in Mandarin cuisine. 

Peking Duck at a Chinese banquet. The Santa Fe New Mexican, March 7, 1920, described a Chinese banquet, mentioning “At these banquets sixteen to twenty courses may be served, the last of which is the Peking duck tucked into a pastry envelope. The proper thing is to pick the pastry up in one’s fingers and the uninitiated westerner provides entertainment for his Peking host by letting the duck and gravy shoot through one of the corners. And if you are not served with Peking duck you may consider yourself intentionally slighted.” This was the only reference I found to Peking Duck being served in a "pastry," although the writer might have been referring to the traditional pancakes. 

More information about how Peking Duck was served and eaten in China was presented in the Chanute Weekly Tribune (KS), December 19, 1924. The author dined at a Chinese restaurant in Peking which specialized in Preking Duck. It was noted that the diners were first taken to a private room where they were brought some dressed ducks for them to choose for dinner. The chosen duck was then roasted in front of an open fire, and “then came the duck, brown and crisp and smoking hot. The servant started slicing off the meat in little slivers which came onto the table in a continuous stream. A saucer was put in the middle of the table and as fast as it was emptied more was slid onto it. We had each been provided with a little stack of pancakes, and the system consisted of holding one of these in your left hand while you reached into the center of the table with your chopsticks and secured three or four of the little pieces of meat and crisp, tender, brown skin, which you placed in a row across one diameter of your little pancake. To this, if you desired, you added a few slivers of green onion, and (if you were rash enough) some minced garlic. Then the pancake was rolled around the filling into a sort of overgrown cigarette and eaten, the end being walloped in a dish of soy sauce, about the consistency of catsup before each bite.”

The article continued, noting a practice which some Americans wouldn't find too appealing. “The last of the duck was signalized by the arrival of the head of the duck, neatly split, so that you could eat the brain and any other tidbit you might be able to extract.” Duck heads might still be provided with some Peking Duck dishes, so you could try it if you were more adventurous.

An article in the Oakland Tribune, February 8, 1927, reported on a planned celebration of Chinese New Year San Francisco. “The grand final feast of garlic-laden dumplings, Canton eels and Peking duck will be spread Tuesday,…” 

After World War II, Mandarin restaurants started to appear across the U.S. with one of the first being The Peking Restaurant in Washington, D.C. in 1947. Peking Duck also started to be mentioned in Boston newspapers during the 1940s, though the articles were about it being served elsewhere, and not in Boston. 

The Boston Globe, March 11, 1942, provided information on restaurants in New York City, including those in Chinatown. The article advised diners in Chinatown to simply tell the cook, with some notice, what you wanted to eat. “Given two days’ notice, he can even provide a Peking duck, which is like no duck anywhere else on earth, its outer surface coming all orange-colored and its inner surface tasting like heaven when the clouds are fluffy.”  Quite a compelling description of Peking Duck which probably intrigued plenty of people to seek out this dish. 

The Boston Globe, May 16, 1948, briefly noted that there were Chinese restaurants in Hawaii that sometimes served Peking Duck.And in Boston Globe, September 30, 1948, there was a brief mention of restaurant in Peking, China, where “Peking duck is broiled over flames which are said not to have been extinguished for more than a century;..”

A lengthier article was in the Boston Globe, October 7, 1948, also describing a restaurant in Peking and the preparation and serving of Peking Duck. It was noted that “The Peking duck certainly deserves the fame it has achieved. The ducks are kept in a dark room and artificially fed until they have reached the right age and plumpness. Then they are broiled over an open fire until the skin is browned and crisp. The duck is then brought in and exhibited before being carved into small pieces. It is eaten in this manner. Small, delicate pancakes are served along with the duck, and the diner places a bit of the duck in the pancake, covers it with a mysterious but magnificent sauce, along with a bit of sweet onion and cucumber and a dab of soy sauce, rolls it up, and eats it with his fingers.” Peking Duck is still eaten in this manner, with bits of skin and flesh inside small pancakes. 

There were a couple more references to Peking Duck being served in New York restaurants. The Boston Globe, April 20, 1951, mentioned that Peking Duck was served at the Shanghai Café, which was run by Charlie Foo. The Boston Globe, March 26, 1952, noted that Peking Duck was served at an uptown café; though it wasn't named. That article also mentioned, “In North China it is considered a delicacy and takes 48 hours to prepare.”

Besides New York, San Francisco was able mentioned as a place for Peking Duck. The Boston Globe, July 28, 1957, described a restaurant called Kan’s; noting that “Peking Duck also takes a day to prepare, mainly because the skin has to be coated with honey and then faced toward a southeast wind. Sometimes, when Kan is becalmed, he has been known to use a Westinghouse fan.” It continued, describing an accompaniment to the duck, different from the usual pancake. “Peking duck is served with thousand layer buns, a lump of white dough that resembles a dumpling or may be a just brown-and-serve roll which has been served before it was browned. A thousand layer bun is supposed to peel into a thousand layers, ..”

Peking Duck is part of Mandarin cuisine, and the first Mandarin restaurant wasn't established in Massachusetts until 1958, when Joyce Chen, opened her first restaurant in Cambridge. Her menu listed  Peking Duck ($10), describing it as “Duck specially prepared and served with Mandarin pancakes, a famous Peking speciality—Order one day in advance.” Besides being the first to serve Peking Duck in this area, Chen was also a pioneer in a number of other respects, such as popularizing the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and coining the term "Peking ravioli." 

Only two years later, another Mandarin restaurant opened in the area, in Medford. The Boston Globe, May 17, 1960, had an ad for Peking on Mystic, at 66 High Street, Medford, which served Mandarin and Shanghai style Chinese food. Perusing their menu, you'll see they served Peking Duck for $9.50, and it had to be ordered in advance. The Boston Globe, April 18, 1969, provided a review of Peking on Mystic, noting that they served Peking duck, which required prior notice, though on weekends, it could usually be prepared with one hour notice.

During the 1970s, several other Boston and Cambridge restaurants started serving Peking Duck. Part of this was fueled by interest in China due to President Nixon's visit to that country. The Boston Globe, January 29, 1971, mentioned that Shanghai Low, at 21 Hudson Street and which opened in October 1970, specialized in the cuisines of Peking, Shanghai and Szechwan. They sold Peking Duck ($12), with one day notice. The Boston Globe, March 24, 1972, had an ad for the China Pearl, which served Peking Duck, with a three day advance notice, and mentioned the President has enjoyed the dish while he was in China.

The Boston Globe, March 10, 1974, reviewed Lucky Garden Restaurant, in Cambridge, and noted it was one of seven locations within a fifty mile radius of Boston where Peking Duck could be found.  And the Boston Globe, November 14, 1974, mentioned that Peking on Fresh Pond, in Cambridge, served Peking Duck ($15.50), with advance notice. 

Today, Peking Duck can be found in Boston’s Chinatown restaurants including China King, Empire Garden, Peach Farm, China Pearl, and New Jumbo Seafood

China King
, owned and operated by Doris Huang (seen in the above video), makes one of the most famed Peking Ducks in the city. I recently interviewed Doris and we discussed her Peking Duck. Prior to the pandemic, they used to sell about 20 Peking Ducks a week, and that number has obviously greatly decreased during the last six months, although the day before the interview, they had sold 5 Peking Ducks. On Thanksgiving, they have sold as many as 50 Peking Ducks, a "Chinese turkey," in a single day.

At China King, their Peking Duck dish is served three ways. First, it's served traditionally, with flour pancakes and hoisin sauce. Second, shredded duck is stir-fried, served with hand-pulled noodles and third, some of the duck served in a soup with tofu and vermicelli. The order will serve four people and costs about $60. A day's notice is required, and maybe even longer near the holidays such as Thanksgiving. Ordering Peking Duck for take-out would also be an excellent way to support Chinatown restaurants. 

Where is your favorite Peking Duck served?

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