American Chinese restaurant menus have long had columns (Column A, Column B, etc.) for ordering food family style. One could choose one item from Column A, two items from Column B, and so forth. The method became so familiar that choices from “Column A” and “Column B” in anything (business, mathematics, et al.) have often been called a “Chinese menu” system.
The “Column A, Column B” joke was popular in New York City from the 1950s. It is not known if restaurants in New York’s Chinatown started this system of ordering. Brooklyn-born comedian Buddy Hackett (born Leonard Hacker, 1924-2003) had a comedy routine about a Chinese waiter in 1952, and “column A...column B” was a famous part of it.
Chinese Cuisine in the United States
The local Chinese restaurant might offer special “family” combinations leading to the iconic phrase “Choice of three from Column A and two from Column B” and its variants.
2 April 1952, Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, “It’s Happening Here” by Frank Broohouser, pg. 33, col. 1:
The new show here offers a genuine comic discovery in the person of Buddy Hackett, who features an off-the-cuff manner, fast line, bright new material, and a routine on a Chinese waiter taking an order from a table full of patrons, which is sensationally funny.
28 August 1956, Daily Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, PA0, “For Canton Style Gourmets: Men Come East To ‘Golden Star’” by Ralph Moyed, pg. 19, col. 2:
They’ll have full course dinners, combination dinners (one from column A, two from column B etc.), and a la carte specialties. And, of course, like all Chinese restaurants, ham and eggs.
28 October 1956, Greenpoint Weekly Star (Brooklyn, NY), “Broadway Showcase” by Paul E. Pepe, pg. 8, col. 4:
One local wag, when asked how they picked the winner, said: “Just like Buddy Hackett says, one from Column A and one from Column B!”
2 December 1958, Long Beach (CA) Press-Telegram, “It Happened last Night” by Earl Wilson, pg. A15, col. 3:
A first-nighter tells us the B’way musical, “Suzie Wong” (about a Chinese girl), is in three acts—two from column A, one from column B.
14 February 1962, Uniontown (PA) Herald, pg. 2, col. 5:
Like most Chinese restaurants, the China Night has a Column A and Column B menu. Yesterday a fellow couldn’t make up his mind. “It would be better if the chef learned the whole alphabet,” he argued.
On the Road for Uncle Sam
by Joey Adams
New York, NY: Bernard Geis Associates, Random House
To tell the truth, I have difficulty separating Column A from Column B on a Chinese menu.
The Mail Order Shopping Guide
by Elizabeth Squire
New York, NY: M. Barrows and Company
You order yours by picking doors from column A, hardware from column B., etc.—a bit like ordering a Chinese dinner.
10 May 1963, The Herald-News (Passaic, NJ), pg. 17, col. 2:
Committee Dubs Study
Its “Chinese Menu”
WAYNE—Members of the study committee which considered ways to solve Wayne’s school dilemma came up with a name for their efforts. They called the finished product “The Chinese Menu.”
William Heffner explained that the program consisted of so many possible combinations of elementary, junior and senior high schools and the order in which they could be built that it was just like “taking one from Column A and two from Column B.”
29 November 1965, New York (NY) Times, pg. 40 ad:
Of course, you can learn the ABC’s of ordering from most Chinese menus.
ABC’s are swell for showing off exotic jargon, like “One from Column A, two from Column B”.
(House of Chan restaurant—ed.)
2 March 1967, The Daily Utah Chronicle (Salt Lake City, UT), “General Education: Starts Survey Courses” by David L. Aiken, pg. 3, col. 2:
Often called the “Chinese menu” plan ("One from corumn A, two from corumn B, and everybody get egg loll!"), ...
The New Language of Politics
by William Safire
New York, NY: Random House
...split ticket, a voter selection, as from a Chinese menu, of “one from column A, one from column B,” as opposed to a straight ticket, going down the line for a party’s candidates.
New York (NY) Times
By FLORENCE FABRICANT
Published: February 13, 1991
Column A and Column B
Unlike New Yorkers who routinely discard the inevitable Chinese takeout menus slipped under their doors, Harley Spiller, an artist who moved to New York from Buffalo 10 years ago, began collecting them and other Chinese takeout artifacts. The result is an exhibit called “A Million Menus: Chinese Takeout Food in America” at the Franklin Furnace, an exhibit space at 112 Franklin Street, between Church Street and West Broadway in TriBeCa.
Along with more than 5,000 takeout menus, including one from 1916, there will be fortunes from fortune cookies, takeout containers and shopping bags on display.
New York(NY) Times
December 18, 2007, 10:02 am
Hot Dogs From Column A, Pastrami Egg Rolls From Column B
By Jennifer 8. Lee
Buddy Hackett - The Chinese Waiter
Nov 18, 2015
New York City • Food/Drink • Thursday, December 20, 2007 • Permalink