Since I am on a local cuisine streak at the moment, allow me to wax poetic about a dish I first discovered at the Cole Farms Restaurant, an institution in nearby Gray, Maine since 1952. I had no idea what to expect when I first came across American Chop Suey on the menu.
For me, chop suey conjures up the absolutely horrid Chun King “Chinese” food (and I use that term with great reservation) my mom occasionally served when I was growing up. It was a congeries of chopped celery, tiny shrimp, chicken or beef mixed with a slurry of flaccid stir-fried mixed vegetables and some frightful mystery sauce that may have been soy sauce but I would not bet my life on it. It came in a can, was heated, and then served over dried noodles. I shudder to even think about it. It has been decades since I last ate the stuff and I can still taste it. It will never cross my lips again. In fact, it was this concoction that scared me away from trying genuine Chinese cuisine until I was living on my own in college.
So, when I saw “American Chop Suey” on the menu at Cole Farms, described as an “Old time New England favorite made with fresh tomato, bell pepper and sweet onion,” it immediately evoked those grim childhood memories of that mockery of Chinese food and I never gave it a second thought . . . not until I saw someone at a neighboring table being served a steaming bowl of what I have always referred to as goulash, which I adore, and I told my waitress that I did not see it on the menu. She open it and pointed to “American Chop Suey.” Imagine my surprise. Goulash has nothing to do with Chinese cuisine and vice versa. I had already ordered but made a mental note to try it the next time I returned.
And I did. Perhaps if the menu had noted that there was ground beef, and that it and the vegetables were served as a sauce over elbow macaroni, I would have realized that this was not the repugnant chop suey of old. You live and learn. Apparently a classic “chop suey” is a hodge-podge of ingredients served as a stew. One source states that “chop suey” is a transcription of “tsa tsui,” the Mandarin Chinese for “a little of this and that.” At long last, the mystery was solved. American Chop Suey is a traditional comfort food here in northern New England, and like the Italian Sandwich, attributed to Italian immigrants to the region. I have certainly never encountered it by this name anywhere else. Growing up in the American Midwest, we simply called it goulash and usually associated it with the Hungarians, not the Italians, who brought the recipe with them when they immigrated to America. I have been eating and enjoying it since I was a kid. And in the Mid-Atlantic states, where I now live part of the year, this concoction is referred to as a “Chili Mac.” Goulash or Chili Mac by any other name would smell (and taste) as sweet.
I was recently reading Tom Seymour’s Maine, a part of the “Off the Beaten Path” series describing unique places to visit in various states. Seymour, a popular columnist and outdoor writer, tells how he likes to eat at “ma and pa” joints when traveling around the Pine Tree State. The kind of places where the locals prefer to eat. He calls American Chop Suey “Maine’s answer to authentic Italian cuisine.” According to seriouseats.com, “the Oxford Companion to Food and Drink traces American Chop Suey's etymological origins to the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks, “an urtext for many institutional foods of the twentieth century.” The manual called for beef round or pork shoulder, mixed with beef stock, barbecue sauce, and salt and served over white rice. A 1932 Navy cookbook suggested the addition of cabbage and green peppers. Practical Home Economics (1919) includes a recipe that adds tomatoes and parsley while omitting the onions and cabbage. Eventually the rice was replaced by elbow macaroni and somewhere along the line grated cheese was added. This led me to wonder just how “authentic Italian” this stuff really is. And around these parts you don’t serve it unless there is a bottle of Worcestershire (what’s this here) sauce on the table.
It has been suggested that American Chop Suey is no longer as popular up here as it once was. Perhaps this might be true in some places for it is not de rigeur on every menu. Yet I have eaten at a lot of places and looked at a lot of menus here in Maine and I seldom have any problem finding it. Now that I finally know what it is, I will order it when I am in need of, or nostalgic for, a genuine comfort food. I am still not big on the name, but it sure does hit the spot!
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