Chop Suey’s Un-birthday

We like to use this blog as a place to mark moments in time that are important to our collective past and present. But it can also be important to take stock of what is not, along with what is. What moments are missing from our collective memory? Or, what histories are impossible to pin to a single moment in time? For example, today, Wednesday, August 29 is not the anniversary of when the dish chop suey was invented. In fact, no one date marks the anniversary of when chop suey was invented. Although some legends attribute the dish’s creation to this date in 1896, that legend isn’t accurate. So today we’re marking an unanniversary. A non-anniversary.

 

A historic neon sign advertising chop suey, from the Museum of Food and Drink’s exhibition Chow.

Why aren’t we celebrating the real chop suey birthday? Because how and when this dish of mixed vegetables, noodles, eggs and meat was born is ultimately a mystery. One story is that it was first created in 1849 by the chef of the San Francisco restaurant Macao and Woosung, who whipped up something quick to satisfy Chinese miners that had come near closing time. Another popular story goes that it was invented on this day in 1896 by the Chinese diplomat Li Hongzhang while in New York. He wanted to prepare a Chinese-themed meal for some American guests that would be more palatable to their tastes. But the most likely truth? The dish is simply an Americanized version of the Cantonese dish tsap seui. Roughly translated to “miscellaneous leftovers,” tsap seui was probably slowly turned from a more traditional Cantonese recipe into what Americans call chop suey today.

Chop suey in a wok.

These stories and today’s non-anniversary serve as reminders for us to continually revisit our origin stories –  whether it’s to do with our food traditions, sacred rituals, or the story of how our ancestors reached whichever land in which we now find ourselves. Sometimes these stories are simple and a lineage can be traced, but oftentimes the details don’t seem to match up, and we are left to wonder: what do these stories, true or semi-true or simply unknown, mean for us today? Are they still valuable?

Chinese takeout containers, a very American sight. From the Museum of Food and Drink’s exhibition Chow.

For many, chop suey from a Chinese take-out restaurant is emblematic of Chinese food in the United States. And yet for me, as someone who is half-Chinese and grew up with my family’s home-cooked and inherited recipes, chop suey seems like the furthest thing from Chinese food. Should we take these issues as areferendum on what is and is not Chinese food? And who gets to decide? Regardless of which origin story of chop suey is true, the stories highlight aspects of the Chinese-American experience in all its contradictory, varied, and storied nature. The complicated story of Chinese food in America even warranted an exhibition at the Museum of Food and Drink. Are these histories neat, tidy, and authentically Chinese? Perhaps not. But they’re worth exploring all the same.

The facts of a thing are not always available for us to find, as we know all too well here at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Certain things are lost to time. All we can do is interrogate the “why” and the “how” and the“when” and the “what” and the “where,” and connect with others over that mission.

 

Taylor Baker is the Visitor Services Associate at the Museum at Eldridge Street.

 

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