Further Notes on Chop Suey’s Origin

The endlessly fascinating question of chop suey’s origin was explored by me, here, last year.

I was taken by a 1902 story in California’s Amador Ledger that suggested U.S. Consul (William E. S.) Fales in Xiamen, formerly Amoy, China introduced the dish to America. However, further digging suggests that while the consul did clearly like the dish and praised it in print on November 3, 1901 in the New York Times, see here (“How to Make Chop Suey”), he probably did not introduce it to America given there are at least two citations in 1880s journalism that mention the dish, authored by a Chinese-American journalist.

See the comment to my earlier post, by Tim Shook, which mentions these earlier articles.

In this interesting historical blog about one year ago, Through the Hourglass, whose author I cannot determine, Fales’s China career is recounted: it appears to have been from 1890-1894. He must have hailed from NYC, as friends there gave him a “welcome home” dinner in 1894. The menu is preserved at the NYPL archives and is referenced in the blog post.

The menu is conventional Anglo-French-American fare, except it does contain a “China punch”. However that was put together and while an evident nod to Fales’s days on the China station*, it does not refer to a food. Even if chop suey had been included, it cannot predate the earlier citations mentioned.

Did Fales play a role in enlarging the footprint of a foreign dish that otherwise might have remained of little significance? Possibly, but clearly the dish was known in America, e.g. Wichita, before Faley boarded ship for China.

Still, the recent historical work adverted to in my earlier post, together with apparent notoriety of the dish in the part of China where Fales served, does suggest, or to me, that chop suey is not a faux-Chinese dish, partly American as was long assumed.

It appears to be genuinely Chinese albeit from a remote, coastal region and was not therefore part of the culinary repertoire belonging to the whole country.

Note that the Wikipedia article references Guandong province as the place chop suey originated, whereas Amoy is in Fujian province, which is just to the north. However, a look at the map suggests, at least to me, that a dish known in Guandong probably had currency in adjoining Fujian. Both are on or near the sea and it is understandable that seamen departing this general region brought this old dish with them.

Perhaps – see again Wikipedia – the dish was national at one time in China, although we incline to a regional origin at least when the bulk of Chinese seafarers left for distant ports. True, Taishan in Guandong, said to be the true centre of the chop suey dish, is about 500 miles from Amoy/Xiamen, but a glance at the map will show this is not a huge distance in a country the size of China.

This is especially so as both are coastal centres that would have easily communicated by sea. It is thus understandable in our view that Faley indeed did encounter the dish when on assignment in Amoy. See map details, here.

In sum, IMO, the dish is a regional specialty that became known in America and indeed beyond as I discussed earlier, and finally was forgotten in the originating land. It is a story that attends so many foods…

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*Perhaps a pun on the porcelain container, or simply a reference to the latter. “China punch bowl” was a 19th century expression, similar say to Lalique crystal of today.

 

 

 

 

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