Was Chop Suey the Greatest Culinary Joke Ever Played?

Have you heard the one about the crowd of hungry miners looking for a meal in Chinatown?

Carleton E. Watkins, “Interior Chinese Restaurant, S.F.,” (ca. 1880)
Carleton E. Watkins, “Interior Chinese Restaurant, S.F.,” (ca. 1880) Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views/New York Public Library

I’m traveling this week and in light of my destination, here’s a postcard.

In 1849, Norman Asing, the self-appointed spokesperson for Chinese Californians, opened an all-you-can-eat buffet called Macao and Woosung, on the corner of Kearny and Commercial streets in San Francisco. The cost of a meal: $1. It’s uncertain how long Asing’s restaurant lasted, or how it contributed to the appetite for Chinese food among non-Chinese diners, but Macao and Woosung is seen as the birthplace of Chinese restaurant in America.

According to Carl Crow, a writer for Harper’s, San Francisco in the midst of the Gold Rush was also the beginning of chop suey. As Crow wrote in 1937:

Soon after the discovery of gold the Chinese colony in the city was large enough to support a couple of restaurants conducted by Cantonese cooks, who catered only to their fellow-exiles from the Middle Kingdom. The white men had heard the usual sailor yarns about what these pigtailed yellow men ate, and one night a crowd of miners decided they would try this strange fare just to see what it was like. They had been told that Chinese ate rats and they wanted to see whether or not it was true. When they got to the restaurant the regular customers had finished their suppers, and the proprietor was ready to close his doors. But the miners demanded food, so he did the best he could to avoid trouble and get them out of the way as soon as possible. He went out into the kitchen, dumped together all the food his Chinese patrons had left in their bowls, put a dash of Chinese sauce on top and served it to his unwelcome guests. As they didn’t understand Cantonese slang they didn’t know what he meant when he told them that they were eating chop suey, or “beggar hash.” At any rate, they liked it so well that they came back for more and in that chance way the great chop suey industry was established.

Crow’s account was published three decades into what historian Samantha Barbas calls a “chop suey craze,” when white Americans “paraded like zombies” to Chinese restaurants. Today, the dish still maintains a reputation for being the biggest culinary joke ever played; the butt-end of which were American diners, too stupid to know they were eating what has been variously translated as “mixed bits,” “odds and ends,” or “garbage.”

What’s remarkable, though, as historian Andrew Coe writes in Chop Suey, is that the Sze Yap-born residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown were eating shap suì as an honest reinterpretation of Cantonese home cooking before white San Franciscans “discovered” the dish. Coe says the story appears to stem from something else:

The tale of about the bullying of the Chinese restaurant owner does ring true and the punch line about eating garbage suggests a veiled revenge (analogous to a chef spitting in the soup) for decades of mistreatment. Call it a myth that conveys a larger historical truth.

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