Chinese lazy susan

In the Bay Area section of the NYT on February 11, Bernice Yeung’s “Lost for Years, a Trove of Chinatown Art Is Tracked Down”:

It’s a modern detective story, set in San Francisco’s atmospheric Chinatown.

It took an out-of-the-blue e-mail and some old-fashioned legwork, but Sue Lee of San Francisco’s Chinese Historical Society of America has solved a mystery that had stumped scholars of Chinese-American art for decades: the case of the missing Jake Lee paintings [depicting Chinese-Americans in a variety of activities].

… The paintings [originally displayed in Kan’s Restaurant, founded by Johnny Kan in 1972] are the focal point of Ms. Lee’s exhibit [on the gallery space at the historical society]. But the show is also an homage to Mr. Kan, who is credited with introducing Cantonese fine dining to Americans, and inventing the restaurant-sized lazy susan.

OED2 has this subentry under lazy:

Lazy Susan n. (also lazy susan) orig. U.S. a revolving (wooden) stand on a table to hold condiments, etc.

with cites from 1917 on, though the objects themselves (under the name dumb-waiter) had an earlier history, and the Wikipedia entry asserts (without references) that the object

could be credited to the Chinese, who used it for their movable type. Rotating it made it easier to get the characters they needed to complete a sentence or phrase.

The Wikipedia entry goes on with an extremely dubious (but entertaining) etymology. On the more scholarly side, Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words discussion concludes that the source of the name is still a mystery.

No word from any source about the history of the Chinese-restaurant lazy susan (like the one above), though it’s possible that Johnny Kan was a vector in its spread.

The origins of lychee ice cream are, if anything, more obscure, since the confection appears in (at least) Chinese, Japanese, and Thai culinary contexs (and has been available for decades in a number of Chinatowns). Maybe Johnny Kan was important in the history of lychee ice cream in San Francisco, but the idea of making such a thing must have occurred to a number of people independently; basically, all you need is the idea of ice cream plus the culinary use of lychees, and you’re good to go.

3 Responses to “Chinese lazy susan”

  1. ShadowFox Says:

    A very quick search pushed the early date back a bit further, to 1906. There are a number of publications that used the term–occasionally in quotation marks and often with an explanation, which indicates relative recency of the term–between 1906 and 1919 (I only looked before 1920). A number of equivalent terms are given in descriptions–butler’s assistant (1912, 1919), turn table (1914), serviette (1914). One dubbed it “a kind of merry- go-round for eatables” (1918). Another identifies it as “A very practical contrivance for the “no-maid” household” (1915). The New Housekeeping [guidebook (1913)] lists Lazy Susan among the “step savers” along with wheeled trays and kitchen cabinets. [all photos follow the page here ]

    Good Housekeeping from Sept. 1906 has an article with a photo of an early “Lazy Suzan” … from colonial days. Caption:

    A ” Lazy Susan ” from the days of the Massachusetts colony. This article of furniture was placed on the dining table. The top, which is about two feet in diameter, revolves, bringing the dishes upon it within easy reach.

    Common materials were mahogany and oak–as some magazine ads indicated–but some authors were pointing out that “modern” lazy suzans were made with a large glass circle on top of a base with ball bearings.

    Sample (The Independent, Dec. 1, 1917):

    Instead of having to pass the butter and the cream, and the toast, and all the rest, simply set them on “Lazy Susan” and round they go. In mahogany, three sizes, 16″, 20″, 24″ diameter, priced respectively $9, $10.50 and $13.50. In fumed oak, 20″ diameter, $10

    Smith College Alumnae Quarterly for 1917 [GB has 1916, but that’s just the first issue in the volume] used the phrase in a figurative sense, but clearly taking off from the dining-room meaning.
    [‘literary “Lazy Suzan” ‘ ]

    August-September 1916 issue of American Cookery contains an interesting reference that may shed some light on this.

    There is a table arrangement used much in Germany.which has now found its way to America, though it is still by no means common. The German frau calls it “Lazy Susan,” but it is entirely different from our product used for salt and pepper shakers. Its only point of similarity is the swivel upon which it turns. The one which joys my heart is of mahogany, and it turns automatically at the slightest touch. It contains seven china dishes, six of which are trapezoids, the center one being octagonal. The trapezoids fit about the center octagon, forming a perfect whole.

    I haven’t searched further, so I have no idea if there is any credence to the German version. But it seems quite clear that the term came into use around 1900 or a short time earlier. Prior to that, the combination “Lazy Susan” appears as a nickname in several publications of fiction, going back at least into the 1860s. But I found no clear connection.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Thanks for digging up this stuff. OED folks and Michael Quinion take note.

      Nice to see references to the glass top and ball bearings.

      Quinion suggests, reasonably enough, that Susan appears in the name as a generic proper name for maids (rather than as a reference to some specific Susan).

  2. Food and drink postings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Chinese lazy susan (link) […]

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