San Bernardino Sun (CA), May 10, 1953, Article by Duncan Hines
Sometime during the 1870s or 1880s, Chinese Chop Suey became available in the U.S., quickly spreading from San Francisco to New York City. It was first available in Chinatown neighborhoods, with a proliferation of restaurants serving this dish, and eventually spread out of those neighborhoods and even ended up being prepared by home cooks.
Jump forward now almost one hundred years. For those growing up in New England, especially during the 1960s-1980s, American Chop Suey was ubiquitous, at restaurants, functions, school cafeterias, and at home. The basics of this dish included ground beef, macaroni and tomato sauce, with some variation of other ingredients, such as the addition of onions, peppers, or even Worcestershire sauce. I ate and enjoyed plenty of this hearty dish, which was considered inexpensive and easy to prepare.
It's name seemed odd to me but I didn't question it much. However, after reading a recent article on the history of this dish, which was short on its actual history, questions came to my mind and this time I wanted some answers. What is the actual origin of American chop suey? How and why did it change from the Chinese version? Is it actually a regional New England dish?
Let's begin a little analysis of the term "chop suey." The Chinese words for "chop suey" literally translates as "different pieces" and, in China, it is commonly used to refer to animal "entrails and giblets." In the U.S., "chop suey" became more to refer to a type of "hash" or "odds and ends," and didn't always include entrails and giblets. In general, chop suey became a dish of meat and vegetables in a brown sauce.
The origins of chop suey are murky, and a few different legends have arose as to its invention. Many of the legends claim it was invented in the U.S., one even alleging it was created by a housewife in New York City. There is some evidence that the dish may have origins in China, especially the county of Taishan in the Guangdong Province where most of the early Chinese immigrants originated. The actual origin though isn't relevant to the questions I've posed so I won't delve further into that issue.
Some of the initial chop suey recipes served in California included the use of viscera, being more true to the original intent of the Chinese term. For example, in the Inyo Independent (CA), January 23, 1891, it mentioned: "...chow chop suey, which is a pungent and palatable conception of chicken livers and gizzards, fungi, bamboo buds, bean sprouts, water chestnuts and all manner of savory spices stewed together,..." And in the Los Angeles Herald (CA), June 29, 1904, there is a reference that the chief ingredient of chop suey sauce was pigeon's blood and that the 39 ingredients in this dish included "rice sprouts, onions, chicken discard, chopped pork and punk."
**********"It was a terrible accident when John Brown Jr, of Richmond, Va., shopped off his little finger on his left hand when making American Chop-suey."
--The Bismarck Tribune (ND), August 28, 1920
Many of the articles you'll find on the origins of American chop suey use The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink as a main source. That book states: "A likely origin for American chop suey is the recipe for Chop Suey Stew in the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks, an urtext for many institutional foods of the twentieth century. The army recipe could be made with either beef round or pork shoulder, beef stock, barbecue sauce, and salt." It then continues, "All these early recipes leave out soy sauce but suggest serving the stew over rice. More recent recipes simplify the service by dropping the rice and mixing in cooked macaroni, but they tend to restore some amount of soy sauce unless using Italian tomato sauce." Others add that macaroni didn't replace rice until around the 1960s.
My own research though indicates the above isn't accurate. American chop suey originated earlier than 1916 and macaroni was used in numerous recipes much earlier than the 1960s. In addition, American chop suey doesn't seem to have originated in New England either. It was far more prevalent across the country, under that same name, for many years. The true story about its origins is much more complex, and its tendrils extend across the entire U.S.
As the 20th century began, another version of Chinese chop suey started to arise, and it became known as American Chop Suey. Initially, the American version wasn't too significantly different from the Chinese version, but would continue to evolve over time.
Someone sought a recipe for American Chop Suey. The Chicago Daily News, February 7, 1903, in the column, “Recipes by Marian Harland,” one of the readers asked Marian for a recipe for American Chop suey but she stated she wasn’t aware of that dish. though that would change within five years.
The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), December 15, 1904, presented recipes for Chinese Chop Suey and American Chop Suey, though it didn't explain why they had different names. The ingredients in the two recipes varied, with the Chinese version made with chicken, pork, onion, dried mushrooms, celery, Chinese potatoes, and Chinese sauce. The American version was made with lean fresh pork shaved small, Chinese potatoes, corn starch, see yon sauce, gee yon sauce, celery, and Chinese mushrooms. Both were cooked in a frying pan and then served with rice.
The slightly two different versions of Chop Suey continued to spread across the country, and the main variation became more evident. For example, the Jersey Journal (NJ), February 9, 1909, quoted the National Food Magazine, “In American chop suey there is much more gravy and it is only slight thickened.” The Washington Herald, October 5, 1913 (D..C) also noted that the difference between the two recipes is mainly the amount of sauce, with the Chinese version having less sauce. The Norwich Bulletin, October 2, 1915 (CT) stated that American chop suey is made the same as Chinese except you add an extra cup of broth when cooking the American version.
As an aside, an intriguing, though racist, article appeared in The Daily Times, October 6, 1905 (Iowa), providing its own explanation for the difference between Chinese and American chop suey. Titled American Way Better, the article detailed a gathering of 293 women, for a cooking demonstration, who came to listen to Carrie Ives Saunders. Saunders told the women that, "...Chinese chop suey was not wholesome for Americans as the Chinese are apt to use opium in its mixing." This was especially a danger to the young and she thought they should be discouraged from going to Chinese chop suey restaurants. Saunders presented her own recipe for American chop suey, "..made from ingredients in American cookery.." and without any opium. It goes without saying that Chinese chop suey wasn't made with opium.
The two different versions didn't appear just in recipes, but also in restaurants across the country. The Daily Review, February 6, 1905 (Illinois) and The Neenah Daily Times, September 14, 1905 (Wisconsin) both mentioned American Chop Suey being served at local restaurants. The Daily Arkansas Gazette, July 5, 1908, provided part of a menu from The Imperiale restaurant listing a number of different chop suey dishes, including American Chop Suey. There was also items like Chop Suey Omelet and Chicken Pineapple Chop Suey.
In an article primarily about macaroni made in Detroit, the Plain Dealer (OH), May 3, 1908, mentioned briefly, “The same thing is true of chop suey. The American chop suey is so much better than the mixture made in the Orient.”
More restaurants serving American chop suey. The Milwaukee Journal (WI), June 4, 1909, had a Menu for Schuster’s with American chop suey. The Lake County Times (IN), September 23, 1910 mentioned that American chop suey was on the menu of the Majestic Cafe. In the El Paso Herald (TX), November 23, 1910, there was an advertisement for a restaurant that served both Chinese Chop Suey and American Chop Suey. The Elkhart Daily Review (IN), January 3, 1912, mentioned an Chinese American cafe with both Chop Suey and American Chop Suey. There was a similar restaurant advertisement in The Cairo Bulletin (IL), September 22, 1912. The Evening Journal (DE), August 21, 1915 also had an advertisement for an American Chop Suey Restaurant, as did the Grand Forks Herald (ND), December 13, 1916.
As can be seen, American Chop Suey wasn't a regional dish, but rather one seen all across the country, from Hawaii to Connecticut, Texas to North Dakota. However, these versions of American Chop Suey still weren't the version with ground beef, macaroni and tomato sauce dish that would sometime later be claimed to be a New England dish. That is true but my historical examination is just getting started.
Additional variations of American chop suey recipes, which differed more than just the nature of the sauce, also started to sprout up, only a handful of years after the first American chop suey recipes arrived. For example, The Hartford Herald, October 27, 1909 (CT) listed a recipe that called for a pound of pork shoulder, one pound of veal from the leg, salt, New Orleans molasses, onion, and celery, all served with boiled rice. No soy sauce was included.
The use of macaroni in the above recipes predates all of the sources claiming that the change from rice to macaroni didn't occur until the 1950s or 1960s. There wasn't any explanation why these recipes differed so much, like the addition of pasta, from the original American chop suey recipes. However, it's clear that variations and experimentations with the original American chop suey recipe started early.
Illinois, Nebraska, Indiana, New Jersey and California might have been the first states to prepare American chop suey recipe with ground beef, macaroni, and tomatoes, but the idea soon spread to other parts of the countries too. It's also clear that the existence of these recipes, from 1908 to 1914, predate the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks, and are far more likely to have spawned American chop suey as we know it than that Manual.
As mentioned earlier, The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink thought that the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks was "A likely origin for American chop suey.." This manual actually has two recipes for "chop suey" and it does not refer to either of them as "American chop suey." One recipe is for a Hash, Chop Suey and the other for a Stew, Chop Suey, both recipes making enough for 60 men. The ingredients for the Hash include fat bacon, onions, ground beef, turnips, corn, chili powder, soup stock and tomatoes. This dish is baked rather than fried stovetop. The recipe certainly doesn't resemble the modern version of American chop suey, and is even different from all the previous recipes that have been printed.
The ingredients for the Stew include meat (unspecified type), onions, celery, barbecue sauce, and beef stock, served with rice. It is cooked on the stovetop. This is similar, except for the barbecue sauce, to previous recipes, but once again isn't similar to the modern version. There isn't any pasta or tomatoes. This recipe doesn't seem to be, by any stretch, the "likely origin" for American chop suey. The recipe already existed for years before the publication of this cookbook, was spread across the country, and doesn't resemble the American chop suey version that used spaghetti or macaroni.
During the next ten years, plenty of recipes for American chop suey were printed in various newspapers, all over the country, many using chopped/ground meat, pasta and tomatoes/sauce/soup. The Boston Globe, February 26, 1919, mentioned prisoners having a lunch of American chop suey, made from beef, spaghetti and tomato sauce.
Recipes using chopped/ground meat, pasta and tomatoes/sauce/soup were definitely not limited to New England. For example, the Evening Public Ledger (PA), October 23, 1917, had a recipe that included chopped flanked beef, onion, spaghetti, and tomato soup. The New-York Tribune, January 20, 1918, printed a recipe, which was obtained from a woman in Reading, Massachusetts, which included chopped meat, onion, spaghetti, and tomato soup.
Another New York newspaper, the Bronxville Review (NY), October 11, 1918, printed an American chopped suey recipe which asked for chopped beef, onion, celery, spaghetti, tomato puree, and Worcestershire sauce, with salt, pepper, and paprika for seasoning.
In Tennessee, The Chattanooga News (TN), October 9, 1919, gave cooks the option to use either spaghetti or rice, with chopped meat, onion, and can of tomatoes, though this dish was baked in an oven. The Champaign Daily News (IL), October 11, 1919, gave a similar option of spaghetti or rice, with chopped meat, onion, and tomatoes. Spaghetti became the main choice in the Omaha Daily Bee (NE), November 8, 1919, where the recipe called for hamburg steak, onion, spaghetti, and tomato soup.
The Rock Island Argus & Daily Union (IL), August 13, 1920, recipe was more old-school, requiring pork, veal, chicken or lean beef, celery, onion, molasses or brown sugar, corn starch, soy sauce, mushrooms, and rice. This indicated that the original version of American chop suey was still popular in some areas.
It was also during this time period that American chop suey started to spread to other parts of the world. For example, The New York Herald, September 11, 1921, noted that a restaurant, called American Chop Suey, had opened in Tokyo. The Tonopah Daily Bonanza (NV), December 17, 1921, also reported that an American soldier had recently opened a cafe in Germany serving chop suey, though it seemed it was more similar to Chinese chop suey.
An Australian newspaper, The Voice of the North, January 10, 1924, printed an American chop suey recipe that called for bacon slices, chopped beef, onion, spaghetti or macaroni, salt, pepper, and soy sauce. No tomato products were used in this recipe, but otherwise it was similar to the modern version of American chop suey.
Jumping ahead about thirteen years, the Boston Globe, April 5, 1943, returned to more of an original American chop suey with a recipe provided by Mildred Carlson. Her recipe called for pork, onions, rice, bouillon cubes, green peppers celery, and soy sauce. The Globe though would soon return to publishing more modern versions of the recipe. In their January 26, 1944 issue, there was a large advertisement from Mueller's Elbow Macaroni which included a recipe for American chop suey. The ingredients included ground beef, onions, can of tomatoes, butter and Mueller's Elbow Macaroni. The advertisement also told consumers that they could save $2 every week on their grocery bill and help solve the meat rationing problem by adding their macaroni to their menu instead of expensive meats.
In the San Bernardino Sun (CA), May 10, 1953, in an article by Duncan Hines (yes, that Duncan Hines!), he writes that "American chop suey can mean any type of stew with rice or noodles." He then details the recipe for American chop suey used at the Hearth Tea Room in Kansas. "Here is the dish The Hearth Tea Room serves as American chop suey. In 2 tablespoons shortening brown 2 cups diced celery, and 1 cup diced onions. Add 2 pounds lean ground meat, 1 No. 2 can tomatoes, 4 tablespoons soy sauce and 2 teaspoons salt. Let cook for 2 or 3 hours in tightly covered vessel. Cook 1/4 pound fine noodles. Add to the above along with 1 cup shaved cheese. pour into casserole dish and let brown in 350 F oven--it takes 20 to 30 minutes." More evidence that American chop suey isn't a regional New England dish.
In the Santa Cruz Sentinel (CA), July 24, 1957, a troop of Girl Scouts, while on a hike, prepared American Chop Suey over an outdoor fire. This one-pot dish, for which they provided the recipe, was prepared with hamburg, spaghetti, tomato sauce, onion and green pepper. It seems Californians were still making so-called "New England style" American chop suey even during the 1950s.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, American chop suey became very prevalent in the New England region, and it seemed to have dwindled in popularity in other regions, or the name of the dish changed to something else. Thus, as time passed, the incorrect belief that American chop suey, with beef, macaroni and tomatoes, was only a New England phenomenon took hold.
The origin of the dish, using macaroni rather than rice or spaghetti, actually extends back, at least, to Illinois in 1910, Nebraska & Indiana in 1913, New Jersey & California in 1914, Minnesota, New York & Virginia in 1915, and West Virginia in 1916. The first use of macaroni in an American chop suey recipe in New England wasn't until November 1916. Thus, it certainly isn't a "regional" New England dish. It's actually a dish that has spanned the entire country, though in more modern times, it might have been most popular in New England.
The history of American chop suey has become more clear, but there is still work that can be done to further explore and enlighten its intriguing history.
Chop suey is "...is an Irish stew translated into Chinese for purely occidental degustation."
--Mariposa Gazette, November 26, 1904