Have you ever had chop suey?
If you’re under 40, you’ve probably never even heard of it. When I was growing up, there were very few Chinese restaurants in my midwestern Ohio town, if any. But I do remember a few times when my mother whipped up an exotic dinner of La Choy’s Chop Suey from the grocery. She’d dump the contents of the tall tin can into in her little-used wok, stir it up, make some white rice on the stove-top, and then sprinkle the final dish with crispy Chinese noodles from another tin can. That was the extent of my chop suey experience. But I dare say, it was authentic. Or as authentic as a made-up dish like chop suey can be.
In her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, author Jennifer 8. Lee dispels the chop suey phenomenon that some of us may remember.
One of the prevailing discourses on how chop suey came to be was that the miners and pioneers trekking out West were hungry and turned to some Chinese to cook for them. Satisfied with their meal, they asked the Chinese what they’d eaten and the answer was “chop suey” which translates to “this and that.” The Chinese simply cooked whatever supplies they had on hand, but it became a staple requested again and again.
The background of chop suey was the focus of an entire chapter, but I highly recommend reading the whole book. And if you want to do a little more digging into chop suey’s place in Chinese cuisine, take a look at the menus of your local Chinese restaurants. Do any of them offer chop suey? None near me do.
But Pekin Noodle Parlor, the oldest restaurant in the U.S., has it on their menu. It’s been there right from the beginning. And you better believe, I had to try it!
To be honest, it wasn’t all that different from the cans of La Choy that I remember from childhood. A nondescript brown sauce that apparently the locals love. Perhaps because they grew up on it? Or because Pekin Noodle Parlor is such an iconic part of the Butte tapestry? It actually reminded me a little of the food I ate in China — which was more mysterious and bland that what we are more familiar with in the American-Chinese food we all know and love here. So perhaps it is more authentic than many people realize.
When I talked to the owner of another of Butte’s iconic landmarks, the Copper King Mansion, she told me that the same family has owned and operated Pekin Noodle Parlor for over 100 years.
“When they celebrated their 100th anniversary, they fed the whole town for free,” she said. The family is deeply ingrained in the culture there.
I was happy to visit this place and feel even connected to this piece of Butte’s history. I didn’t get a fortune cookie, but I did get a blast from the past. And that, my friends, is priceless.
Have you had Chop Suey?