Sunday August 29, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Chop Suey

On this Day:

In 1896, Chop suey was invented in New York City by the chef of the visiting Chinese Ambassador. Or was it? The true origin of chop suey is a culinary mystery fit to be investigated by Charlie Chan…

Chop suey is a dish in American Chinese cuisine and other forms of overseas Chinese cuisine, consisting of meat (often chicken, fish, beef, shrimp, or pork) and eggs, cooked quickly with vegetables such as bean sprouts, cabbage, and celery and bound in a starch-thickened sauce. It is typically served with rice but can become the Chinese-American form of chow mein with the addition of stir-fried noodles.

Chop suey has become a prominent part of American Chinese cuisine, Philippine Chinese cuisine, Canadian Chinese cuisine, German Chinese cuisine, Indian Chinese cuisine, and Polynesian cuisine. In Chinese Indonesian cuisine it is known as cap cai (“mixed vegetables”) and mainly consists of vegetables.

Chop suey is widely believed to have been invented in the U.S. by Chinese Americans, but anthropologist E. N. Anderson, a scholar of Chinese food, traces the dish to tsap seui (杂碎, “miscellaneous leftovers”), common in Taishan (Toisan), a county in Guangdong province, the home of many early Chinese immigrants to the United States. Hong Kong doctor Li Shu-fan likewise reported that he knew it in Toisan in the 1890s.

The long list of conflicting stories about the origin of chop suey is, in the words of food historian Alan Davidson, “a prime example of culinary mythology” and typical of popular foods.

One account claims that it was invented by Chinese American cooks working on the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century. Another tale is that it was created during Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang’s visit to the United States in 1896 by his chef, who tried to create a meal suitable for both Chinese and American palates. Another story is that Li wandered to a local Chinese restaurant after the hotel kitchen had closed, where the chef, embarrassed that he had nothing ready to offer, came up with the new dish using scraps of leftovers. Yet recent research by the scholar Renqui Yu led him to conclude that “no evidence can be found in available historical records to support the story that Li Hung Chang ate chop suey in the United States.” Li brought three Chinese chefs with him, and would not have needed to eat in local restaurants or invent new dishes in any case. Yu speculates that shrewd Chinese American restaurant owners took advantage of the publicity surrounding his visit to promote chop suey as Li’s favorite.

Another myth is that, in the 1860s, a Chinese restaurant cook in San Francisco was forced to serve something to drunken miners after hours, when he had no fresh food. To avoid a beating, the cook threw leftovers in a wok and served the miners who loved it and asked what dish it was—he replied “chopped sui”. There is no good evidence for any of these stories.

Chop suey appears in an 1884 article in the Brooklyn Eagle, by Wong Chin Foo, “Chinese Cooking”, which he says “may justly be so-called the ‘national dish of China’.” An 1888 description states it was a “staple dish for the Chinese gourmand is chow chop svey [sic], a mixture of chickens’ livers and gizzards, fungi, bamboo buds, pigs’ tripe, and bean sprouts stewed with spices.” An 1896 newspaper report states: “Chow chop suey is a sort of stew made of chicken’s livers and gizzards, calves’ tripe, bean sprouts, celery and ‘meu’, which is a sort of Chinese first cousin to macaroni”. In 1898, it is described as “A Hash of Pork, with Celery, Onions, Bean Sprouts, etc.”

During his travels in the United States, Liang Qichao, a Guangdong (Canton) native, wrote in 1903 that there existed in the United States a food item called chop suey which was popularly served by Chinese restaurateurs, but which local Chinese people do not eat, because the cooking technique is “really awful”.

In earlier periods of Chinese history, chop suey or chap sui in Cantonese, and za sui, in Mandarin, has the different meaning of cooked animal offal or entrails. For example, in the classic novel Journey to the West (circa 1590), Sun Wukong tells a lion-monster in chapter 75: “When I passed through Guangzhou, I bought a pot for cooking za sui – so I’ll savour your liver, entrails, and lungs.” The term za sui (杂碎) is found in newer Chinese-English dictionaries with both meanings listed: cooked entrails, and chop suey in the Western sense (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

My brother is a Karate expert, a Chef and a Lawyer. We now call him “Chop Suey.”

Second, a Song:

Doug and the Slugs are a Canadian pop music group formed in 1977 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The band enjoyed a number of Canadian top 40 hits in the 1980s, most notably “Too Bad” (1980), “Who Knows How To Make Love Stay” (1982), “Making It Work” (1983) and “Tomcat Prowl” (1988). The song “Too Bad” served as the theme song for the 1999-2001 ABC sitcom The Norm Show, starring Norm Macdonald.

Doug and the Slugs was founded in Vancouver in 1977 by Toronto-born Doug Bennett, who had been a graphic designer in his home town before moving to British Columbia in the mid-1970s. Bennett served as the band’s chief songwriter, frontman, and lead singer. Keyboardist Simon Kendall described Bennett’s writing style: “He had some unique and very interesting lyrics. An anachronistic style, if you like. He was a bit of R&B, he was a bit 1940s, he was a bit Tex-Mex. As a writer, I think he deserves more credit than he gets for being intelligent. He wrote some beautiful and quite provocative songs.”

After some turnover amongst Slugs in the early months, the lineup stabilized by 1978, and for the entirety of their recording career (1978–1992), Doug and the Slugs consisted of lead vocalist Doug Bennett, guitarists Richard Baker and John Burton, keyboardist Simon Kendall, bassist Steve Bosley, and drummer John “Wally” Watson.

In their early years, Doug and the Slugs had trouble getting club owners to book them due to their name. They entered a battle of the bands in Vancouver at the Body Shop, but lost. Hardly discouraged, the enterprising Bennett forged an underground following of dedicated fans by promoting his own dances at community halls (most notably the Commodore Ballroom) in Vancouver, and giving these dances attention-grabbing names like “Beach Blanket Bungle,” “Secret Agent Man,” and “The Last Upper.” These Dances became hot ticket items due to their guaranteed-good-time status during 1978-1979. Doug and the Slugs also put on an annual outdoor dance festival known as “Slugfest.”

The band built a solid following in the Vancouver area through constant live performances. Determined to exert control over their own music and artwork, the band founded their own record label, Ritdong Records, and worked out a distribution deal with RCA Records for their recordings (Bennett chose the name “Ritdong” because he described it as the sound produced by an out of tune guitar). Their debut 45 single “Too Bad” was issued on Ritdong in February 1980, and became a substantial hit in Vancouver, rising to #2 on local Top 40 station CKLG. Shortly thereafter, the track entered the Canadian hit parade, becoming a top ten hit. The song would also be used in the late 1990s as the theme song to the sitcom The Norm Show. That same year, Doug and The Slugs’ manager, Sam Feldman mortgaged his house to make The Slugs debut album, Cognac & Bologna, that was recorded at Metalworks Studios in Mississauga, Ontario.

Throughout the 1980s, a string of singles and albums followed. Their biggest success was 1982’s Music For The Hard Of Thinking, which in Canada peaked at #22, and spun off two top 40 singles: “Who Knows How To Make Love Stay” and “Making It Work”. However, the band didn’t break through internationally, and RCA ended their distribution deal with Ritdong in 1984, after the release of the best-of compilation Ten Big Ones.

Ritdong then entered into a distribution deal with A&M Records. Two Doug and The Slugs albums were issued via this deal, 1984’s Popaganda and 1988’s Tomcat Prowl, as well as a Doug Bennett solo album, 1986’s Animato, on which all the Slugs played. The 1988 single “Tomcat Prowl” became the band’s final top 40 entry, peaking at #23.

Ritdong’s deal with A&M expired after Tomcat Prowl, and the group didn’t record for several years. Doug and The Slugs’ final album, 1992’s Tales From Terminal City, came out on their own Tomcat Records label. It is the only Doug and The Slugs album not to have hit the Canadian charts.

Most of the Slugs left the band after 1992, although Kendall stayed until 1994. After this time, Bennett toured with an ever-rotating cast of new musicians, still billing their act as Doug and the Slugs. The original Slugs reunited to back Doug for two “25th anniversary” shows in Vancouver in 2003.

Bennett acknowledged the fact that he was a heavy drinker, and eventually all of the years of playing bars and heavy drinking onstage compromised his health. He succumbed to liver cirrhosis after falling into a coma in October 2004, passing through Calgary from Saskatchewan. Kendall remarked that Bennett “hadn’t been looking after himself. His health [had] not been good for the last couple of years, so it wasn’t a total surprise. But nobody realized how sick he was.”

Here is “Chinatown Calculation” from Doug and the Slug’s album “Cognac and Bologna”.  I had to choose between a lower quality live recording or a higher quality version with no video.. my apologies. I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“With wok cooking, you chop things up into little pieces for maximum surface area, so they can cook in minutes, if not seconds. Sauteing is energy efficient; baking is not.” – Jennifer Lee

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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