Whether out of a misplaced desire to differentiate themselves from the common hoard, or because of a residual mistrust of migrants, well-to-do young sophisticates who fancied themselves as connoisseurs of Chinese cuisine began claiming that chop suey wasn’t Chinese at all – but an American hoax. In 1905, the Boston Globe tracked down six Chinese students who said they had never heard of it in China; and three years later, the Kansas City Star lamented that in none of the city’s chop sueys was ‘real Chinese cooking served’. A variety of alternative origin-stories was peddled – each more ludicrous than the last. The most common held that, at the height of the Gold Rush, a group of miners had pitched up at a San Francisco restaurant out of hours, demanding food, prompting the frightened chef to throw together whatever leftovers he had to hand to create what he dubbed ‘odds and ends’. It was nonsense; but it was soon accepted as fact.
Prohibition propelled chop suey to even greater heights. Unlike many Western restaurants, ‘chop sueys’ had never served alcohol – only tea; so while many of their competitors went out of business, they only increased in popularity. Their numbers grew; and, in an effort to cater to mass tastes, they began branching out. As well as an even simpler version of their eponymous dish, they offered their customers singing, dancing and in some cases opium and prostitutes.
This had a paradoxical effect. It strengthened long-ingrained prejudices. This was especially evident in films. In https://paydayloansnc.com/cities/southport/ East is West (1930), chop suey joints were depicted as dens of unspeakable vice; while in The Detectress (1919), chop suey itself was mocked as a foul concoction of dead dragonflies, shoe leather and a puppy. But chop suey increasingly became a symbol of urbane sophistication. Louis Armstrong wrote songs about it; Miguel Covarrubias and Edward Hopper commemorated it in paintings of New York nightlife; and in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Main Street (1920), Carol Kennicott shocks the sleepy town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota by serving it at a party.
Following the Japanese invasion of China in 1931, and the repeal of the Chinese Expulsion Act in 1943, the latter view began to prevail. As Chinese immigrants came to be seen less as a threat and more as victims, chop suey was embraced with fewer reservations. Restaurants became a common sight even in out-of-the-way towns; simplified recipes appeared in newspapers; and the first make-it-at-home kits hit the e, the more the Chinese themselves were pushed to the margins. By the 1950s, it was again being cast as a home-grown classic, rather than as a Chinese original; and the myths of half a century before were resurrected – albeit for rather different reasons.
The triumph of myth
Since Lyndon Johnson was roundly mocked for serving chop suey to Thailand’s Chinese-food-loving prime minister in 1968, chop suey’s popularity has experienced a steady decline. Though it is still occasionally found in restaurants and canteens, it is no longer the staple it once was; and despite the publication of some intriguing books (most notably by Andrew Coe), its past is all too often swamped by myth. This is both telling and sad. At a time when the shadow of nativism and prejudice is once again haunting the US, it would surely be salutary to revive this most ‘toothsome’ testament to Chinese immigration – and to appreciate it as such.
Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His latest book is Humanism and Empire: The Imperial Ideal in Fourteenth-Century Italy (Oxford, 2018).
This only served to fuel its popularity further. Within a matter of months, a host of new restaurants opened, especially near what is now Times Square. Known colloquially as ‘chop sueys’, these establishments adapted the recipe to suit their clientele. The more ‘exotic’ ingredients were replaced with easily identifiable meats and a few simple vegetables; and the taste was toned down so far that it became almost unrecognisably bland. The restaurants were also unusual in staying open latebined with cheap, ‘exotic’ food, this ensured that they became favourite haunts of theatre-goers and ‘Bohemian’ revellers. Soon, ‘chop sueys’ opened throughout the country.