This week in 1917, the birthday of Joyce Chen, who was one of the biggest reasons why Chinese food became a big hit in the United States.

Chen was born in Beijing and grew up near Shanghai.

Her family was well-off enough that they had their own chef, whose work sparked Chen’s interest in food and cooking.

In the late 1940s, the Chens fled China as the Communists were taking over.

They settled in Massachusetts, near the campuses of Harvard and MIT.

That’s where they met lots of Chinese students who missed the food from their home country.

Chen had been making foods for her kids’ school and teaching some home cooks how to make recipes.

In 1958, she decided to open her own place, the Joyce Chen Restaurant.

The recipes weren’t always exactly the way people in China made them, but that’s because Joyce Chen was introducing Chinese food to American eaters and she wanted to essentially meet them in the middle.

She pointed out how Chinese dumplings were not that different from ravioli, for example.

She introduced numbered menus to make it easier for her customers to order her dishes.

She offered a buffet so those customers could try a wider range of recipes, and she designed and sold her own equipment, such as a flat-bottomed wok that worked better on American stoves than the original version.

In 1962, Chen released a popular cookbook of her recipes.

A few years after that, she was starring on her own TV cooking show, produced on the same set in the same studio as another cooking star of the era, Julia Child.

Chen had her own national TV show at a time when there weren’t many Asian-American hosts on the screen.

Not only that, she found a way to bring American TV to her native country: when the US and China started reopening relations in the 1970s, Chen got permission to visit, and brought a camera and film, which her son learned how to use right before they left.

The video they brought back became a documentary that showed the US what daily life was like in a country that had been largely off the radar for decades.

Just another example of how Joyce Chen made Chinese culture a part of American culture.

Starting tomorrow in Valliant, Oklahoma, it’s the Valliant Watermelon Festival.

There’s going to be music, a parade, a horseshoe tournament, a photo contest, and the chance to try watermelon in all its forms, from a classic unadorned slice to watermelon salsa.

Joyce Chen (National Women’s History Museum)

Valliant Watermelon Festival (Travel Oklahoma)

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