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Stateside Podcast: La Choy's forgotten Detroit roots

Design by Ellie Katz. Photos cortesy of Beatrice Foods Archive.
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For 85 years, a factory for La Choy — a popular prepackaged Asian meal brand — stood on the west side of Detroit. Earlier this month the abandoned factory was torn down as a part of Detroit’s blight removal program.

While the Detroit factory no longer stands, the brand itself is still in business. (It now operates manufacturing in Ohio.) If you’ve been in the international section of a supermarket, chances are you've seen their products — maybe even bought some La Choy brand sauces or noodles. And while the brand's signature blue label and mimicry font are ubiquitous, it's origin story is not.

La Choy was founded in 1922 by two University of Michigan graduates, Wallace Smith and Ilhan New.

Smith and New capitalized on an untapped market in Detroit: customers who wanted ingredients used in Chinese cooking. What started as bathtub cultivated mung bean sprouts eventually transformed into a full line of Asian inspired food products.

Assistant city editor at The Detroit News Amy Elliot Bragg said she thinks that the two men were not only hoping to serve the growing Chinese community in Detroit, but also to introduce white people to Chinese home cooking.

“A huge part of La Choy's history and business success was educating white American consumers about Chinese food. And they produced, in addition to all their specialized ingredients and prepackaged food, a lot of cookbooks and pamphlets about Chinese cuisine, teaching home consumers how to cook this food at home,” Bragg said.

It's a history mired with racial stereotypes and caricatures of Asian people. Bragg said that some of the educational cookbooks and pamphlets are uncomfortable to look at in today's lens. At the same time, it's products like La Choy that have in part shaped American gastronomy.

"American Asian cuisine or Chinese cuisine is its own kind of food. And it's not necessarily authentic or genuine, but it does tell a story about, you know, how America brought in so many immigrants and people from all different cultures and, you know, perhaps treated them poorly," Bragg said. "But also, you know, those communities contributed so much to our culture and our food ways."

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Dan Netter joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2022 and is a senior at Michigan State University studying Journalism and Social Relations & Policy.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.