Notes from Japan

Making Chop Suey in South Carolina

By Suzanne Kamata

Courtesy: Creative Commons

In her heyday, my mother was a full-time homemaker, and an excellent cook and baker. She managed to have lunch and dinner on the table at the exact time every day, and there was always a homemade dessert. She followed recipes closely, something that I also have a tendency to do, which irritates my freewheeling husband. Mom had a box crammed with recipes handwritten on three by five cards, and a shelf of cookbooks, many of which were community compilations filled with recipes by the members of various churches she and my grandmother had attended. Occasionally, she made alterations which became notations in the margins: “Only half a teaspoon of sugar.” “Omit garlic.”

Several years ago, my mother, now in her eighties, lost her ability to follow a recipe. Although she can handle making a sandwich or opening and heating a can of mixed vegetables, she no longer makes meals. That task has fallen mainly to my father, but on my annual trips home from Japan, where I now live, I try to help out. On my most recent visit, I made a meat loaf using the recipe that my mother used exclusively, which calls for evaporated milk, chopped onions and peppers; Japanese-style curry and rice; and macaroni and cheese. I asked my dad what else he might have a craving for. He said “chop suey.”

When I was a kid in 1970s Michigan, chop suey was one of my favorite dishes, but I hadn’t had it in ages. Last I recall, Mom had made it when my Japanese husband had accompanied me on a visit. Her version called for chunks of pork, bean sprouts, and celery with some kind of sauce. This mixture was layered over rice and topped with crunchy chow mein noodles. I knew that it wasn’t authentic Asian cuisine, that it was more of an interpretation for Americans. But the dish still conjures memories of my childhood, those days of riding bikes and climbing trees until dusk, of no homework, and ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ on our black and white TV.

“Okay,” I told my dad. “I’ll make it.” I turned to my mother and asked her where the recipe was. Although she can’t cook, she remembers in exactly which cookbook certain recipes are located. But this time she said, “There’s no recipe. It’s in my head.” But she couldn’t tell me how to make it.

I turned to the internet and learned that chop suey had been all the rage in the 1950s, and that every American housewife had had her own way of making it. Some used chicken, some added snow peas and baby corn, but I remember my mother’s as being totally brown. She had never added anything green or any other color. The sauces were slightly different, too, calling for oyster sauce in one case, soy with dark molasses in another.

I went back to my mother’s cookbooks to see what I could find. Finally, I came across a recipe in a community cookbook produced by a Methodist women’s group at the church we had attended in Grand Haven, Michigan, when I was a child, before we moved to South Carolina. It was annotated in blue ink: “See p. 78 Good Housekeeping Cookbook.” I couldn’t find the volume in question.

“Maybe you don’t have it any more,” I told my dad.

He shook his head. “It’s there somewhere. She never threw anything away.”

I looked again. Nothing. Even so, the recipe I’d found seemed pretty close to what I recalled. I made a shopping list and headed to Walmart.

The grocery section at the local Walmart had a modern selection of Indian curries and Japanese Pocky sticks and Thai noodles, but I couldn’t find canned bean sprouts or those crunchy chow mein noodles. Was it due to a supply chain issue? Or maybe no one produced those ingredients anymore. Maybe, along with chipped beef on toast, chop suey was a relic of the past. Disheartened, I scoured the rows of raw vegetables; still, no luck.

As a last resort, I made a stop at Food Lion, which also had an international foods isle, heavy on the Mexican. Lo and behold, they stocked a few cans of bean sprouts and a bag or two of those crunchy La Choy noodles from my past!

Back home, after sleuthing around the shelf a bit more, I came across a thick old cookbook which had lost its cover. It turned out to be the Good Housekeeping Cookbook. Some of the pages had fallen out, and been tucked back in. I immediately turned to page 78 and found a recipe for “California Chop Suey” with further annotations.

My South Carolina version was a combination of the one found in the Methodist church community cookbook and the Good Housekeeping version. I had substituted fresh chopped celery and onions, and a can each of mushrooms, beans sprouts and water chestnuts, for the “canned oriental vegetables.”

Due to a variety of dietary restrictions, real or imagined, my mother declined to partake. She did peer into the pot and declare my concoction watery, but I didn’t want to add more cornstarch. I hefted the pot onto the table, along with the rice I’d cooked, and a bag of those crispy chow mein noodles. My dad had made salads.

We heaped our plates with rice, then ladled chop suey on top. Lastly, we sprinkled some of those chow mein noodles over the mounds.

Dad dug in with a spoon. “Mmmm! Good!”

I thought it had turned out pretty well, too. Maybe that chop suey wasn’t authentically Chinese, or any other Asian country’s dish, but it hinted at a flavour that resonated more deeply. My tongue recognised that chop suey as the taste of Mom.

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.


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