By Jennifer 8. Lee | April 12, 2008
A few people had passed me this little item by Andrea Thompson that ran on the New Yorker’s web site on chop suey a few weeks ago, where my book is mentioned and quoted. Exciting.
Born in the U.S.A.
In this weekâ€™s Tables for Two, Ligaya Mishan reviews Chop Suey, whose tongue-in-cheek name has little to do with the actual menu: itâ€™s not Chinese, and the eponymous dish isnâ€™t served here. But perhaps the restaurant, with its amalgam of Korean, French, and American influences, is aptly named after all. â€œChop suey,â€ according to Jennifer 8. Lee in her new book, â€œThe Fortune Cookie Chronicles,â€ means â€œodds and ends,â€ and most likely came about as a way to offer Americans familiar ingredients dressed up as novelty.
As Lee finds out, there are several origin myths: it was first served at a banquet for a Chinese diplomat; it began when a group of drunks demanding food after hours were served a dish made of kitchen scraps; it was the calculated creation of a Chinese cook whose boss asked for something that â€œwould pass as Chinese and gratify the public craze.â€ In a Talk of the Town piece published in 1972, the author, Victor Chen, describes its beginnings thus:
Chop suey originated in a legendary California mining camp, where a legendary Chinese cook found himself shorthanded one day and made do by giving his Occidental customers a mishmash of whatever was lying around. When asked what the dish was called, the man said â€œchop sueyâ€ (or, in Mandarin, tsa sui), which can be translated as â€œmiscellaneous broken pieces.â€ There is no such dish in China as tsa sui.
The American taste for chop suey has waned, but the dish lives on. Lee writes:
Chop suey, I discovered, has become an American export. I have found it in Japan, Korea, Jamaica, Guyana, and the Caribbean. In India, â€œAmerican chop sueyâ€ (often made with ketchup!) remains one of the most popular dishes on Chinese menus, a stalwart just across the border from China. In Los Angeles, a Chicano girl who worked at Avis confided to me that her family would sometimes drive four hours to Mexicali, the Chinese-restaurant capital of Mexico, to have chop suey. She added, â€œYou canâ€™t get it in the same way in the United States.â€
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