Mama Murphy’s Chop Suey

Starts with canned vegetables and still cooks for two and a half hours. But that makes for cooking “chop suey” beef and pork.

When we think about a dish like chop suey–vegetables and meat in a cornstarch-thickened sauce–we tend to think of it through the lens of what we’ve come to expect from contemporary Chinese carry-out places: stir-fried ingredients cooked in a matter of minutes. But if you go back to around the dawn of the 20th century, when chop suey started showing up on menus, you were far more likely to find a gizzard. Mama Murphy’s version looks like something from the 1910s.

But let’s look back at the earlier version and the evolution up to that point.

Guey Lon Chop Suey restaurant sign at 3968 N. Elston St. in Chicago, by S Jones, on Flickr (CC license). The restaurant opened in the 1950s.

The September 23, 1897 edition of the Cambridge (Indiana) City Tribune includes a story from the New York Mail and Express that describes beef chop suey as being “boiled beef and mushrooms.”

This version from the January 3, 1902 edition of the Bedford (Pennsylvania) Gazette, doesn’t stray far from that, although with different proteins:

How to Make Chop Suey.

For those who like or think they would like the famous Chinese dish, chop suey, the following recipe, which any intelligent housewife can follow, was given by W. E. S. Fales, for several years vice counsel at Amoy:

“For four persons two chickens’ livers, two chickens’ gizzards, one pound young, clean pork cut into small pieces, half an ounce of green root ginger and two stalks of celery. Saute this in a frying pan over a hot fire, adding four tablespoonfuls of olive oil, one tablespoonful of vinegar, half a cupful of boiling water, one teaspoonful of worcestershire sauce, half a teaspoonful of salt, black and red pepper to taste and a dash of cloves and cinnamon. When nearly done, add a small can of mushrooms, hap a cupful of either bean sprouts or French green peas or string beans chopped fine or asparagus tips.The see-yu source which is eaten with this delectable dish can be procured at any Chinese grocery.”

Compare this version that also factors in poultry gizzard from later the same year. From the December 23, 1902 edition of the Boston Globe:

Chop Suey.

Chop suey is made of chopped meat and the gizzard of one cooked duck, half a cupful of shredded almonds, and one cupful of sliced celery. Mix this with a sauce of one tablespoonful of butter, one teaspoonful of arrowroot, one cupful of chicken north and one teaspoonful of table sauce; simmer all for 20 minutes.

Aunt Ella.

Not interested? Maybe you’ll like the gizzard better if we add smoked beef, ketchup, and a can of fancy mixed nuts. From the October 14, 1903 edition of the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Weekly Sentinel:

Chinese Chop Suey (to the best of our knowledge this is a genuine Chinese recipe)–Blanch one dozen almonds and as many hazelnuts, the meats of a dozen English walnuts, and chop rather fine. Remove the brown skin from a Brazil nut and cut in thin slices. Pare the flesh from each end of the raw gizzard of a chicken, simmer until tender. Take one-quarter of the breast meat of a cooked chicken, the gizzard and one ounce of smoked beef; run all through a food chopper. In a saucepan slowly cook two tablespoonfuls of butter until the color begins to change. Add quickly four tablespoonfuls of strong chicken stock, one tablespoonful tomato ketchup, the prepared meat and nuts. Cover and simmer ten minutes. Have ready two good-sized Jerusalem artichokes which have been scraped and cut in thin slices (be sure to keep in cold, slightly acidulated water until needed, or they will become discolored). Now at the artichokes, with a high seasoning of paprika, and salt spoonful salt. Cook for ten minutes more, and it is ready to serve. A favorite dish with those who have tried it.

I’m afraid there’s not much help for us in the August 27, 1904 edition of the Cannelton (Indiana) Enquirer:

Better Not to Know.

It was their first meal at a Chinese restaurant.

“George,” asked Mrs. Ferguson, “what is chop suey made of?”

“Well, it’s a mixture of several things,” said Mr. Ferguson evasively. “Isn’t the ornamentation of this room the queerest thing you ever saw.”

Meanwhile, in England, you could enjoy a traditional potato and asparagus chop stew-y. From the September 27, 1907 edition of The (London, England) Evening News:


Chop-Suey is a very common dish, but very palatable. Take equal quantities of ham, chicken liver, and chicken gizzard sliced very fine, potatoes, chopped onion, and asparagus tips. Stew the animal food half an hour in as little water as possible. Then add the vegetables and stew until the asparagus is soft. Season to taste and serve smoking hot.

This long cooking time accompanies the introduction of a meat that requires long cooking in this version from the March 14, 1913 edition of The Kingman (Indiana) Star:

Chop Suey.–This dish, if prepared at home, can be enjoyed without any qualms of imagination: Mince the cooked meat of one cooked chicken, two pounds of veal, a fourth of a pound of veal tongue; mix and season well. Boil two cups of rice until tender, drain and mix with the meat. Chop a can of mushrooms, one sweet pepper, two cloves of garlic and a pinch of powdered cloves. Put all into a granite kettle and pour over a quart of rich chicken and veal stock. Set to simmer two hours.

Tongue does require a long cooking time, and that’s a pretty solid hint as to the type of pork and beef we’re looking for in Mama Murphy’s instructions. But we see what’s really going on when we factor in the flour. Consider this version from the November 7, 1913 edition of The Janesville (Wisconsin) Daily Gazette:

Do you eat chop-suey, this side of Chicago? Here is a recipe that will make a generous allowance for six persons: One pound of fresh pork, one pound of veal, three stalks of celery, three large onions, one can of mushrooms, salt and paprika to taste. Cut the meat in small pieces, removing all fat. Brown it in drip pins, cover with water and cook until tender. About half an hour before serving add the celery and onions cut fine and the can of mushrooms. Cook a cupful of rice in salted water, until the grains are swollen and tender and add the water of this to the meat. Thicken the suey with flour and cook a few minutes longer. Serve with the rice.

Let’s see… cut the meat in cubes, brown it, stew it, and add paprika. Which part of Hungary is China in, again? Because that sounds more like a goulash.

But it does explain for us what “chop suey meat” was intended to be–stew meat, essentially. Cubes of tough beef and pork (often the boned-out blade chops) that would be stewed first. If it makes you feel any better, compare this recipe to the recipe for oriental goulash from Kent, Ohio.

Still hungry? We learned the history of chop suey in the post for chop suey from Kent, Ohio; we talked about the La Choy brand in the post for tuna crunch salad from Cedar Falls, Iowa.

From a box sold in East Moline, Illinois.

Mama Murphy’s Chop Suey

Have butcher cut:

  • 3/4 lb. chop suey beef
  • 3/4 lb. chop suey pork

6-8 celery sticks
1 medium onion
1 large can La Choy chop suey vegetables
11 small can La Choy bean sprouts
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 to 4 Tbsp. brown sugar

Cut up celery and onions. Saute onion and celery with oleo in fry pan.

Put in large pot; flour meat and brown in large pot.

Add vegetables and bean sprouts. Cover with water; pack down vegetables.

Cook two hours, low heat.

Thicken with flour-water mix.

Add soy sauce and brown sugar–low heat. Cook 30-45 minutes.

One Comment

  1. This is pretty much my Mom’s chop suey recipe! She served it with white rice and chop suey noodles. I could never figure out how she cooked her meat so that it was gray (but that’s another story). I still use this recipe, just change a couple of things (number one is how I cook the meat! It’s not gray!) Thanks for a blast from the past! 🙂

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