This week in Chicago, history buffs and neon sign aficionados scrambled for every penny they had for a chance to be the next owner of a local relic: the restaurant sign. Chinese Orange Garden. Dating back to the 1930s, the 10-foot-long neon sign spells out Orange Garden, of course, but in much larger letters like the focal point of the object, it says in all caps: “CHOP SUEY.”
The sign ended up selling for $17,000, Block Club Chicago Reportsunfortunately not to anyone on The takeawaythe drafting of. But we can’t get the bright outline of the words “chop suey” out of our minds. If chop suey was once such an important dish that Iits presence on a menu was more important than even the name of the restaurant that serves it, why is it conspicuously absent from so many Chinese menus today?
What is chop suey?
The dish chop suey falls into the category of American Chinese cuisine, featuring meat (either chicken, fish, beef, shrimp or pork) and eggs, cooked quickly with vegetables such as bean sprouts, cabbage and celery, all mixed in a gravy-like sauce and served over rice. If served on fried noodles instead of riceit is a variation on eat me. Then there is of course a bastard, fully american version made with ground beef, macaroni and tomato sauce.
Since its inventionchop suey has also permeated the culture in other ways—ChopSuey & Co. is a 1919 silent short film, and the name was attributed to a 1929 painting by Edward Hoppera computer game 1995and at least five songs, including the 2001 hit by System of a Down.
History and origin of Chop Suey
Much of what we in the United States call typical Chinese food was brought by immigrants from the Toisan region of China, American Heritage Reports. It was a population of poor peasants who gathered dishes using their crops and livestock, mainly eating mixed vegetables and fried noodles, using every part of pigs and poultry they raised. According to historian Yu Reniuthe English expression “chop suey” is borrowed from the local tsaap slui (雜碎), two characters which together designate entrails and offal.
Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States in large numbers in the 1840s, traveling to California during the gold rush to encounter violent prejudice; a lot ends up settling in New York, where they still dealt with racism and xenophobia but were at least slightly more tolerated. In 1885, Chinese journalist and activist Wong Chin Foo wrote an article for a New York food magazine titled The cookerdispelling rumors that Chinese immigrants were cooking kittens and puppies. The article sings the praise of Chinese cuisine, and in it, hand lists “chopping soly” as one of his favorite dishes, one for which he explained that each chef had his own personal recipe, but at the heart was that same Toisan principle of mixed vegetables and meats.
This article was enough to inspire American journalist Allan Forman to visit the New York restaurant Mong Sing Wah, Atlas Obscura explainssand in his review of the place he writes the first description of chop suey as it became known in Chinese restaurants in New York. Soon the dish spread elsewhereand each chef adds his own touch according to his specific clientele. BBefore long, it would become more representative of American cuisine than Chinese culture.
The decline of chop suey
In the 1900s, chop suey was the “it” dish, and soon New York was home to hundreds of Chinese restaurants selling it., according to Education About Asia. Throughout the 1920s, the dish became ubiquitous, with recipes appearing in women’s magazines and United States Amy cookbooks.
In 1922, a white A graduate of the American University of Wisconsin started the The Choy company with a Korean-American business partner to take advantage of the demand for “Asian” ingredients. In 1925, Louis Armstrong released the song “Cone Chop Suey.” Restaurants across the country have started popping up selling chop suey and announced the dish with large decorative panels in English letters whose strokes imitated those from Chinese characters (this font would later become known as “chop suey”). It looked like chop suey couldn’t fail. Sor what happened?
The change has begun in part when chef Cecilia Chang opened Mandarin in San Francisco in 1961. In 2015, Chang (died 2020 at age 100) told PBS“I decided, well, since Chinatown the food is pretty bad, lots of chop suey, I think I want to introduce real Chinese food to Americans.”
Once Americans realized that people in China didn’t eat chop suey, demand for the dish hesitated – suddenly all they wanted was a taste real Chinese cuisine, even while other Americanized dishes, such as General Tso’s chicken, were slowly being invented in Manhattan, Education reports about Asia. So why did General Tso still present on menus when chop suey has fallen into disuse? How do consumers decide which “non-authentic” Chinese dishes are acceptable in Chinese-American cuisine and which are not? There is no concrete answer, but it may be because, as the first to get up, chop suey also had to be the first to fall. And the composition of the dish is reproduced in many other ways in other menu itemss; beef and broccoli is basically a variation of chop suey, or at least embodies the Toisan sensibility that wore the chop suey.
Restaurants still serve chop suey today
Even though the dish is no longer as common as it once was, there are still restaurants across the country that offer the dish. One of the oldest Chinese restaurants in the country is still known for its many chop suey dishes: Beijing noodle parlor in Butte, Montana. Both its location and its variations on the dish – the tomato beef chop suey is a menu item— prove that chop suey is much more an American dish than a Chinese dish. And it will never go away for good. Chop suey just gonna find a new life, like a TikTok recipe or, in the case of the Orange Garden neon sign, like a piece of history.