American chop suey, a charter member of the comfort food crowd, was the dish that used to fill us up at potluck suppers and cafeteria lunches. It was doled out in big spoonfuls, and we ate it with bread and iceberg lettuce salads.
When we tried to remember exactly what went into a plate of American chop suey, we recalled beef, macaroni, tomatoes and bits of celery and onion. Then we drew a blank. When we tracked down the origins, we learned there wasn’t any more to American chop suey than what we remembered. Except for salt and pepper, there were virtually no seasonings and despite the name, it wasn’t Chinese.
American Chop Suey probably started as a stew or casserole with a variety of ingredients. The first time the recipe appeared in print, in the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks, it was called Chop Suey Stew and was probably the blueprint for the dish we remember eating. It was made with beef or pork, barbecue sauce and salt.
In 1932, Navy cooks added cabbage and green peppers; other recipes left out cabbage and used tomatoes and parsley. The dish was originally served over rice, but in later versions the rice was replaced with macaroni, which was mixed in with everything else. The recipe is so simple, it’s hard to resist tinkering with.
We thought how easy it would be to add garlic or Italian herbs, but we held back and made the American Chop Suey we ate years ago. It was exactly what we remember, and if pressed, we can even picture ladies in white uniforms and hairnets dishing it out!
—By Jean Kressy