Chop Suey: Its Rise and Fall

In 1898, China Viceroy Li Huang Chang came to the U. S. on a diplomatic mission.  In New York and Philadelphia  he was feted and  large crowds welcomed him like a conquering hero.  It was during this trip that the story that one evening the diplomat wanted Chinese food instead of the typical American banquet fare.  Legend has it that a Chinese chef had to improvise since he was given short notice so he could only toss together left over vegetable cuttings from the kitchen to  concoct a stir-fry dish for the Viceroy who reportedly found it to be a delight. When he asked what the dish was called, he was told it was "chop suey," which literally means "odds and ends." Despite this elevated status this pedestrian dish received, American journalists were impressed and the story was widely published in papers across the country.  

The association of chop suey with this diplomat with celebrity status was undoubtedly a major factor in stimulating interest among non-Chinese to go slumming in dark and dangerous Chinatowns in search of chop suey.  However, it is a myth that the dish was unknown before a Chinese chef created it for him.  There is evidence that chop suey existed in America before his 1898 visit. For example, a 1892 article in the San Francisco Chronicle described the dish, chow chop suey, as a popular dish at Chinese restaurant banquets.  

   Before Li Huang Chuang had his 1898 introduction to chop suey, it appears the dish was already known in America, judging from grocery store ads.  A 1895 grocery store ad in Centralia, Wisconsin  offered a 16. oz package of vegetable chop suey for 35 cents.

The A & P grocery chain store in Laredo, Texas, offered pork cubes for chop suey for $1.89 lb. in an advertisement in 1898.  Clearly, these ads show that chop suey was already known and popular in the U. S. prior to Li Huang Chang’s 1898 chop suey dinner. 

Despite its  growing acceptance in the first decades of the twentieth century, chop suey was mocked by some non-Chinese, as evidenced in the 1900 doggerel below, that showed suspicion of this mystical dish, that was alleged to be popular with John Chinaman.  Newspaper articles raised questions about what ingredients chop suey contains and suggested incorrectly that  birds, birds’ nests, and even powdered dolphin’s fin were some of the items in the dish! 

However, by the 1920s, chop suey was winning the stomachs, if not the hearts, of non-Chinese.  Mazola, a brand of cooking oil,  had ads that offered a recipe book for only 10 cents which included a recipe for chop suey that purportedly was “as the Chinese make it.”

Chop suey, in the popular mind, was the epitome of Chinese food.  Indeed the term "chop suey joints" came to signify the hundreds, if not thousands, of small hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants that served a few Americanized Chinese dishes along with popular American dishes.  By the middle of the last century, however, chop suey, the dish, had all but vanished from the menu offerings of Chinese restaurants, but the name lingers on, dying a slow death.