Because I’ve always heard the dish was a hoax perpetrated on gullible Americans, writes reader Margie. Margie, you are definitely not the only one who’s heard the same thing. In fact this particular rumor about chop suey has a pedigree nearly as distinguished as chop suey itself.
It dates back to 1904 in fact. That was the year that a Chinese cook by the name of Lem Sen hired a New York attorney to help him prosecute all the many thousands of Chinese restauranteurs in America who, he claimed, had stolen his recipe. So he said chop suey was a dish he’d invented in his restaurant in San Francisco, only few months before Li Hung Chang’s momentous visit to the US. It was an ersatz Chinese concoction made up to please American patrons. But then it took off — and Lem wanted both credit and compensation. Few people in the know believed Lem at the time, but the idea that chop suey wasn’t Chinese went Victorian-viral. The question so many food writers and historians have asked ever since is: why?
I believe I know the reason why most Americans were only too happy to believe such a thing. We foodies tend to go through three distinct phases when a new food trend comes along. Stage 1 is fascination and wonder at the whatever-it-is that bursts onto the scene. That’s followed by 2, joy and exultation as we explore the metaphorical (or literal) undiscovered country. Succeeding rapidly is 3, elite condescension directed at all those who have yet to get on the bandwagon. It’s this third thing that really ticks off regular people, and for very understandable reasons.
It was the same way then as it is now. Hipster types getting excited about a new thing and lording it over ordinary people — who couldn’t wait to throw it back in their faces. See there you obnoxious foodie fops! You’re being had — and you’re too stupid to notice! It was a sort of sweet revenge that felt way too good to ever let go of, which is why it’s endured for so long.