American Chinese food started to rise in popularity at the turn of the 20th century with dishes like Chop Suey becoming really popular. While Chop Suey was Chinese in ingredients and cooking method, it was a commodity that was shaped by negotiations between the food makers and the the taste preferences of the customers.
Chop Suey has always been dubbed as “mysterious” in its origin and the multiple stories attached to its origin have become close to historical myths. Some story versions credit the Chinese railroads laborers for its invention where the dish was created by Chinese cooks to feed the Chinese workers working on the railroad. Another story claims that white railroad workers came to a Chinese restaurant, just before closing, and demanded a meal be made. So the cook took the leftovers from the kitchen, a mixture of vegetables, meats and brown sauce and presented them with the meal. The workers loved the dish and asked cook what it was called, and he made one up “Chop Suey”, meaning bits and pieces.
Yet another variation on that version, which stemmed from white Americans’ fear that the Chinese might retaliate for racist harassment they faced:
An angered Chinese cook mixed together the day’s garbage in a bit of broth and presented it to San Francisco restaurant patrons who’d earned his ire. Not knowing any better, those being insulted loved the dish, and much to the amused bewilderment of their tormentors,returned time and again to order it. Chop Suey, therefore, is a mispronunciation of “chopped sewage.”.
A second story, with various versions, is always tied to the Chinese diplomat Li Hung Chang visit to the United States. This visit is mostly tied to 1896 but some versions are dated to 1877, the place is also disputed and each version gives one of the three location, San Francisco, Chicago and New York area. A collection of some of the versions of the second story have been compiled in this exhibit.
Hayford, C. W. (2011). Who’s Afraid of Chop Suey?. Education About Asia,16(3), winter, 7-12. Retrieved December 4, 2018, from https://web.archive.org/web/20120617022910/http://asian-studies.org/eaa/Hayford_16-3.pdf
Lee, J. (2008). The fortune cookie chronicles : Adventures in the world of Chinese food (1st ed.). New York, NY: Twelve.
Roberts, J. (2002). China to Chinatown : Chinese food in the West (Globalities). London: Reaktion.