Reader Dana asks:
This may be off-topic…I’m pretty sure it is…but can you tell us when chop suey went from being something authentically Chinese to the culinary travesty that it is now? Enquiring minds want to know!
Not at all, Dana…in fact quite on-topic since American Chinese food is what’s on the agenda this week. From what I know it wasn’t long. In the fifteen years following Li Hung Chang’s visit, Chinese restaurants spread like wildfire across America. Most of them had greatly abbreviated menus, serving popular dishes like chop suey, chow mein and egg foo young.
There’s no question that most Chinese restaurant owners were far less worried about authenticity than they were with turning a profit. Americans did want to be “challenged” by Chinese food, but only a little bit. Thus the more that Chinese dishes resembled American classics the faster they sold. Which is a long way of saying that it didn’t take very long for chop suey to evolve from a fairly interesting leftover stir fry into a beef-and-celery stew swimming in a thick brown gravy and served over fried noodles or rice. I’d think it happened more or less immediately.
Some interesting dates in chop suey history include 1907, the year the first Chinese recipes appeared in an American cookbook and 1920, the year the first canned chop suey hit the market brought to us by — who else? — La Choy.