In a life beset by uncertainty, we can be sure of this: Socrates never ate a St. Paul Sandwich.
How do we know? Why, simple logic:
Premise A): Socrates, the Greek philosopher who died in 399 B.C., never visited St. Louis, Missouri.
Premise B): The St. Paul Sandwich comprising an egg foo young patty, slice of tomato, pickle and iceberg lettuce sandwiched between two slices of mayonnaise-laden white bread is cultivated exclusively in the culinary soil of the city's chop suey houses.
Ergo, Conclusion C): Socrates never ate a St. Paul Sandwich.
This is no mere conjecture. This is deductive reasoning logic.
OK, so knowledge of a long-dead philosopher's dietary habits may provide only modest consolation for a species clinging to Earth's surface while hurtling through infinity at 185 miles per second but I say take heart. Wasn't it Socrates, after all, who first taught us to revel not in what little we know, but rather in the knowledge that we know nothing?
Bald and pug-nosed, with fleshy lips, a mule-like neck, a full beard and an acerbic disposition, Socrates may have authored a sweet and self-effacing philosophy, but he was no great inspirer of Athenian sympathies. The thinker had a libertine's taste for the young sons of Greek nobility, and it wasn't long before city elders charged him on two counts: denying the city's gods and corrupting its youth. But before Socrates was found guilty (and ultimately committed suicide by drinking hemlock from a silver goblet), he managed to articulate one of Western thought's most enduring concepts: the platonic ideal.
Be it a meal, a man or a concept, Socrates believed all earthly things were but imperfect replicas of their idealized forms. His was a profoundly sanguine vision of the universe: Yes, our lives may be inundated by failed relationships, declining health and subpar meals, but by ignoring these imperfections and concentrating on the ideal forms, we might ourselves approach a perfection uncorrupted by earthly desire.
After all, who needs desire in the unblemished face of perfection? Served, say, an ideal porterhouse steak, are you really going to want to douse it with A1? Of course not. This is a Platonist's porterhouse. Who are we covetous and imperfect creatures that we are to send it back?
Which brings us to a gnarly Socratic crossroads: Perfection robs us of personal choice. Sure, we may admire perfection, but who doesn't? Confronted with perfection, we have no choice but to dote, and just as it's impossible to find flaws in the object of our ardor, it is equally impossible to divine anything unique, anything that is our own, in our ardor.
It is this tension between an icy perfection and our overheated desire to exercise our flawed will that has occupied some of the West's biggest minds for more than two millennia of philosophical inquiry.
Does anyone really think, then, that the fare served in the unassuming chop suey houses of St. Louis would be immune from this all-too-human dilemma? Can there be any doubt but that egg foo young, chop suey, crab Rangoon and, of course, the St. Paul Sandwich are but imperfect descendants of their unimpeachable Chinese archetypes?
These humble Cold War dishes seem all the more fraudulent amid today's national infatuation with micro-regional cuisines. But it was not always so. From its obscure origins in the Cantonese diaspora, chop suey became the cuisine de siècle during much of the past century, when Americans embraced its ersatz exoticism and perceived cosmopolitanism as a cuisine all their own.
But like any good -ism, chop suey's reign eventually faltered, unseated by the postmodern age of disparately blended cuisines, farm-specific meats and organic veggies. Vanquished and subject to highfalutin ridicule, chop suey has retreated to America's culinary (and urban) ghettos.
Forgotten, but not gone.
And while the history of chop suey may be read as a thumbnail allegory of Western philosophy, there's one distinction:
Chop suey is easier to digest.
Walking into Park Chop Suey at the edge of the gentrified Lafayette Square district is an experience somewhat shy of philosophical. A bright little shop that does a brisk lunch takeout business with area workers, Park Chop Suey is one of the last chop suey joints south of Delmar Boulevard, St. Louis' de facto color line.
Park Chop Suey does not possess a formal dining room. There are no chairs. In fact, aside from a few stacks of free papers and a row of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, the room's only adornment is the yellowed front page from the July 4, 1984, edition of this newspaper tacked to the wall. The cover story that week, an ode to the up-by-the-bootstraps immigrant experience entitled "Dreams Come True," featured Park Chop Suey founder Steven Yuen.
Behind a Plexiglas screen on the opposite wall hangs Park Chop Suey's menu. Here you can purchase a full order of pork chop suey for $6.25. An order of crab Rangoon costs $1.70, and fried crab sticks will set you back $2.50. The menu's crown prince, the St. Paul Sandwich, costs anywhere from $1.80 to $2.50, depending on how you want it dressed up.
After beating an egg into diced onion, bean sprouts and, if the customer wishes, chicken, pork, beef, duck or shrimp, Le Dung, one of Park Chop Suey's three cooks, prepares the St. Paul's central ingredient by scooping up the mixture in a ladle and gently dropping it into an oil-brimming wok.
A few minutes of dunking and flipping, then Dung fishes the patty from the oil with a slotted spatula. Using a second spatula and his own leverage, the cook presses out the excess grease before placing the finished egg foo young on a slice of white bread along with lettuce, tomato and a few pickle slices.
The St. Paul, invariably packaged in wax paper, offers the flavor combo you'd expect whenever lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise and a cholesterol-rich animal product share bread space. But the sandwich's true genius lies in those slices of pickle. Not only does their acidity cut through the fattiness, it also imbues the sandwich with a sharp counterpoint, a gustatory point of reference.
Park Chop Suey proprietor Billy Luu claims that his restaurant's former owner, Steven Yuen, created the St. Paul Sandwich and named it for his hometown, St. Paul, Minnesota. But Yuen is in bad health and could not be reached for comment, so the precise origins of the St. Paul sandwich might forever remain murky.
A diminutive man with a sparse moustache and an even sweep of ink-black hair, Luu first came to work at Park Chop Suey in 1980. He'd only recently arrived in St. Louis as a Vietnamese refugee (via Malaysia and Indonesia) and had little more than the clothes on his back and the cash in his pocket. Yuen, who'd opened the place in the mid-1970s, took him in. Six years ago Luu bought out Yuen and today he runs the shop with his wife, Maria, and three employees.
"[Yuen's] children weren't interested in it, because it's really hard work," Luu says. "It'll take at least twelve hours a day, so you don't have much time for your family."
Luu's watching the lunch rush from the rear of the kitchen. His cooks, all of whom are Vietnamese, dress identically: jeans, sweatshirts, running shoes, baseball caps. They've assembled a simple shrine to a grease-stained Buddha that sits on a shelf: a vase of plastic roses and a red plastic party cup filled with incense. But the room's most impressive feature is a massive, fire-breathing stove outfitted with four wok cradles, each of which is sealed all around with an iron surface and equipped with a spigot mounted on the wall behind the cooking surface. When a dish is finished, the cook swings the spigot over the wok and scrubs it down with a piece of steel wool without taking the pan off the flame.
Other than the stove, almost everything in Park Chop Suey's kitchen is recycled. Boxes are reused as garbage pails, wide-mouthed cans of water chestnuts are reborn as containers for sesame oil and kung pao sauce. Behind us a five-gallon Kikkoman soy sauce bucket brims with duck wings. To our left a gray plastic tub is filled with finely diced cabbage, pork and carrots destined for countless egg rolls ($1.10 for an order). To the right is an ancient reach-in cooler that holds cellophane-wrapped bowls of pre-fried pork, celery and carrots, plus three bottles of Budweiser. Nearly every inch of free shelf space in the kitchen is occupied by tubs of cooked rice.
"I think the food is as good as any fast food we have in St. Louis," says Luu, adding, "Before I came here, there were people that took longer. The business is better now, faster."
Though Park Chop Suey looks exactly like every other chop suey joint in St. Louis, the restaurant does have one distinguishing feature: The ordering area isn't separated from the kitchen by a sheet of bulletproof glass.
July 4, 1924, Tijuana, Mexico. It's the dinner rush and Caesar Cardini is running low on supplies.
An Italian immigrant living in San Diego, Cardini opened his restaurant across the border to avoid Prohibition laws. He isn't about to let a food shortage interfere with a bang-up dinner service, so, taking a few raw egg yolks, a dash of lemon juice, grated Parmesan cheese, olive oil and a head of romaine lettuce, Cardini makes culinary history by combining the ingredients tableside to create the world's first Caesar salad.
Or so the story goes. Similarly, the venerable chimichanga is said to have been invented in 1922, when Monica Flin accidentally dropped a burrito into the deep fryer. Chef Charles Ranhofer is credited as the father of eggs Benedict, named in honor of a regular customer, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, who couldn't find anything on the menu that pleased her one night in the 1860s. Popcorn purportedly sprung into existence one scorching afternoon when kernels began popping right on the stalk. The American table is filled with creation myths, and chop suey is no exception.
The first origin story goes like this: During an 1896 visit to New York City, Chinese diplomat Li Hung Chang asked his chef to use local ingredients to make a Chinese dish for his American dinner guests. Li's visit was widely reported in the media of the day, and historians speculate that savvy Chinese restaurant owners may have exploited reports of the dinner by marketing it as "chop suey," Li's favorite dish.
Still, it is unlikely that Li's chef invented chop suey. The Oxford English Dictionary's first chop suey citation is dated eight years earlier, to 1888: "A staple dish for the Chinese gourmand is chow chop svey [sic], a mixture of chickens' livers and gizzards, fungi, bamboo buds, pigs' tripe, and bean sprouts stewed with spices."
The second chop suey origin myth takes place in the years following California's gold rush of 1849. A group of hungry miners arrived at a Chinese restaurant just as its owner was about to close for the night. Unable to turn the miners away, the cook threw some leftovers in a wok and fried it up. The miners loved it. When they asked its name, the restaurant owner replied, "chop suey," meaning literally "little pieces." (A variation involves American workers stopping by a Chinese camp during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.)
Typically made from bamboo shoots, celery, onion, water chestnuts, bean sprouts and some sort of meat, chop suey is served over rice and cooked with a salty, cornstarch-laden gravy that's virtually unheard of in traditional Chinese cooking. Though unknown in China, the dish is thought to be a rough-and-ready replica of tsap seui, a stir-fried dish of "chopped bits" that hails from Toisan, a rural town south of Canton and the ancestral home of many nineteenth-century immigrants.
"When the Chinese first came over to work in the mines, there were no women, only men. They didn't have good cooking skills because they never cooked at home," says cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, who's often referred to as the Julia Child of Chinese cooking. "They didn't have Chinese ingredients. So they cooked American vegetables in the Chinese style, but they also began using more meat and made a gooey cornstarch-based sauce."
There were other differences between American-born chop suey and its platonic ancestor. Not only was tsap seui made chiefly of Chinese vegetables, but parsimonious Chinese chefs would often use only scrap meat: ears, feet, intestines animal parts Americans don't like to think about, let alone see.
"At the time China was a very agrarian society," notes Cynthia Ai-Fen Lee, a curator at New York's Museum of Chinese in the Americas. "They'd often use entrails and giblets. Nothing was left to waste."
Early Chinese-American cooks modeled what would become egg foo young after its more exotic Chinese ancestor, fu yung don.
"The way they are making egg foo young is very different from what they're making in China," says Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. "In China it's a very fluffy dish of creamy scrambled eggs with baby river shrimp. It is really very delicious. It's elegant, and many times we'll top it with pine nuts.
"It's very different from egg foo young, which is more like a Frisbee," the cookbook author concludes. (Having never visited a St. Louis chop suey house, Lo has never sampled a St. Paul Sandwich. "Oh, my goodness!" she exclaims upon hearing a description of the local specialty. "That sounds awful! That sounds really awful.")
Inelegant, perhaps. But with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, jobs for Chinese laborers were becoming scarce. Often seen as insular exotics, the Chinese in America were subjected to widespread discrimination. In 1882 the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, a tough anti-Chinese law that barred further immigration of Chinese laborers and ensured that the Chinese-American population would be made up almost entirely of Cantonese bachelors.
Bachelors who didn't cook.
Some Chinese laborers found work on farms. Otherwise, laundries and restaurants were the main businesses that remained open to them. Many of the early eateries catered mainly to other Chinese bachelors though many also served "American" fare like apple pie and turkey, according to Yong Chen, a researcher at University of California-Irvine who specializes in the history of Chinese-American cuisine. More to the point, Chen says, those early Chinese cooks ingeniously began to craft Chinese-like food out of recognizably American ingredients.
"This coincided with 'Chinatown' becoming a tourist attraction," Chen adds. "From the early days, they realized that there were certain things that Americans wouldn't eat, [like] shark's fin or abalone. It wouldn't sell in American markets. So they constantly tried to modify their menu based on their assumptions about what non-Chinese customers would like. They thought Americans would like sweet things, so they made lots of sweet-and-sour things."
In 1790 the German thinker Immanuel Kant published his Critique of Judgment, a slim volume that turned the West's ideas about ethics and aesthetics on their collective head.
Dissatisfied with the Socratic notion that ideal justice, beauty or good exists only on some astral plane, Kant brought perfection to the people. He reasoned that through rational thought, we can each arrive at a judgment that is just. Through these same rational steps, we can form correct aesthetic judgments and divine the true "good." No longer were humans relegated to the role of witness with no choice but to love the perfect. Instead, Kant articulated a philosophy of radical subjectivity.
Ultimately Kant believed rationality was a one-way street and that each of us using correct reason, of course would arrive at the same conclusion. Still, he opened the door. It was his line of philosophical inquiry that allowed us not only to love something despite its imperfections; his philosophy allowed those very imperfections to become the objects of our affection.
The overwhelming Platonist qualities of authentic Chinese food likely ruined Theodore Dreiser for humbler Kantian pleasures when he arrived in St. Louis' Chinatown, located at the site that would later become the old Busch Stadium and known as Hop Alley.
It was 1894 and young Dreiser, writing for the St. Louis Republic, reported that when he walked into a restaurant in Hop Alley, the owner told him, "Come a Sunday. Got glood dinner Sunday. Come a flive clock; bling flend."
Dreiser, in the formative years of a prolific career that would immortalize him as a novelist of social inequality, returned that Sunday as instructed. He was about to meet Chinese food itself, and his Western palate would be forever changed:
"The mysterious China dish completed the spread," Dreiser wrote in an article dated January 14, 1894. "This dish was wonderful, awe-inspiring, and yet toothsome.... The arrangement of the whole affair inspired visions of hot salad. Celery, giblets, onions, seaweed that looked like dulse, and some peculiar and totally foreign grains resembling barley, went to make up this steaming hot mass."
Dreiser might have been impressed with the food, but his editors were not. The illustration that accompanied the article shows a wide-mouthed Chinese peasant tucking into a bowl of stewed rats.
Hateful, yes. But the Republic was not alone in depicting the Chinese as a rat-eating race of heathens.
"There are textbooks that described the Chinese as rat-eating people," says Huping Ling, a historian at Truman State University and the author of Chinese St. Louis, a history of the city's Chinese population. "Dreiser described everything as very delicious, but somehow the food's exoticism was always exaggerated and the Chinese were shown as inferior rat-eaters."
By the time Dreiser enjoyed his "mysterious China dish," savvy Chinese restaurateurs were already catching on that if they skewed their menus slightly toward the Western palate, they could attract a growing number of adventurous Westerners.
"Chinatowns at that time we're talking the turn of the century were tourist hot spots," says Cynthia Lee, who along with UC-Irvine's Chen co-curated Have You Eaten Yet?: The Chinese Restaurant in America, a traveling exhibition that documents a century's worth of Chinese restaurant menus. "People would go slumming in the Chinese quarter. They could experience this little foreign land in America, and it worked out nicely that chop suey was affordable, different yet familiar."
The trend caught on. In 1903 the New York Times published an article estimating that New York was home to more than 100 chop suey restaurants, many of them located outside Chinatown.
"A lot of these restaurants served a midnight supper. It was a little bit like a diner; it was really this sort of late-night activity," Lee says. "It wasn't even really connected to Chinatown at that point. It became this culinary fad."
St. Louis was no exception. As Ling recounts in Chinese St. Louis, court records indicate that by 1903 a few chop suey shops had sprung up outside Hop Alley. Initially catering to the city's Chinese laundrymen, they soon broadened their base to include European- and African-Americans. The food was also beginning to make inroads into the American cultural consciousness. In 1922 entrepreneurs Wally Smith and Ilhan New (the latter a Korean), founded La Choy Food Products Company. In 1926 Louis Armstrong released the song "Cornet Chop Suey." Three years later painter Edward Hopper tackled the topic in Chop Suey, which features two elegant flappers dining at a chop suey house. Authors from Sinclair Lewis to Raymond Chandler mention the dish in their novels; the Chinese cook is a stock character in Merian C. Cooper's 1933 film King Kong.
Many restaurateurs embraced their role as domestic exotics, deliberately playing up their pidgin English and bend-and-scrape hospitality. One menu displayed in the Have You Eaten Yet? exhibition hails from a 1940s-era Hawaiian restaurant called House of P.Y. Chong: "Fliends sometams make appointmans but no keep. Me-P.Y. then must give nother peoples chance. You please excusee me. Please you no bling liquor my place no come drunk my place.... You come drunk, Me-P.Y. no can allow you come in. Too muchee tlouble. You please excusee me and thank you vely muchee."
Others pursued very narrow customer bases. Many Chinese restaurants catered exclusively to the nation's Jewish population.
"You hear stories all the time about the close relationship between the Jews and the Chinese," says Lee, adding that restaurants with names like China Glatt served dishes such as Glatt Wok Chicken. "When Jewish immigrants came to this country, a lot of them came from villages. Eating Chinese food was very cosmopolitan, and I think it was in some ways part of the formation or constructing of a new Jewish-American identity."
It may not have been the elegant cuisine of mainland China, but chop suey, egg foo young and crab Rangoon were ours and we loved them, imperfections and all. So much so that by mid-century, a Chinese restaurant in St. Louis likely featured a chop suey and egg foo young-dominated menu identical to that of its brethren in Miami or Boise.
All the while, the nation's strict Chinese exclusion laws ensured that only a handful of immigrants could enter the United States each year. Those who did quickly adapted their cooking styles to conform to the chop suey recipe for success.
"What is amazing is the fact that in the development of Chinese food, there has never been any big corporation involved, and yet you have this very standardized Chinese menu," marvels UC-Irvine researcher Yong Chen. "There are no Chinese food schools or universities to speak of, and there's never been a really dominant chain."
That last fact is all the more extraordinary when you consider that, according to the trade publication Chinese Restaurant News, the U.S. is home to roughly 36,000 Chinese restaurants. In other words, there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than there are McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King franchises combined.
"The Chinese restaurant is really the story of the American dream," says Chen. "Chop suey has become so deeply imbedded in the American consciousness that it's truly one of the most American dishes around. It really is an iconic dish. And it's disappearing."
Kant taught us that by loving something that is imperfect we can create a passion that is uniquely ours. We loved chop suey for its glutinous gravy, crab Rangoon for its sweet and creamy center, egg foo young for its pucklike honesty.
But what would Kant say upon realizing that chop suey's gravy is a horrid, gustatory Frankenstein? Tastes change, and the very flaws we once adored can quickly become the objects of our evolving scorn.
Documenting the recent unsolved gangland-style murder of eighteen-year-old Brendan Johnson, the Evening Whirl, a broadsheet devoted to the misdeeds of St. Louis miscreants, opened its story this way:
"The ghetto perp with more dog in him than beef fried rice is still on the loose after he shot a teen in the head the evening of Sept. 8."
One hundred and twelve years after the St. Louis Republic accompanied Theodore Dreiser's article with an illustration of rat-eating Chinese, certain stereotypes persist.
And today's north-side chop suey purveyors have another hurdle to clear.
"They've got mold everywhere. The floors are filthy, the glass is filthy, the windows are filthy and the [building] colors are hideous. They disregard the entire community. They have no feelings at all toward the black community," says Charles Quincy Troupe, alderman for St. Louis' predominantly black First Ward. "The monosodium glutamate and salts and all that other stuff they have in it will send your sugar diabetes right through the roof and the black community has a propensity for heavyweight diabetes and high blood pressure. It's not a wholesome meal, and it's not a safe meal."
Troupe's U-shape ward, bounded by Northland Avenue to the south and West Florissant Avenue to the north, is home to only two chop suey houses. That's two too many for Troupe.
"They are just playing a parasitic role. They come in, they suck up all the money and then they leave, and the environment they create becomes a part of the problem," says the alderman, who aims to get the chop suey houses to clean up their act or get out of his ward.
Wait. He's not done.
"They don't contribute to the scholarship fund," Troupe says. "They don't contribute to the back-to-school programs. They don't attend the police community-relations meeting. They don't participate in anything in the community, they don't support the churches, they don't support nothing."
Gino's Lounge, a tavern in the neighboring suburb of Pine Lawn, is straightforward about its distaste for chop suey houses. On one of the tavern's walls is a sign:
"No Chinese Food."
"A black radio station called me up on the air and asked me why these chop suey places never hire any blacks," notes Eric Huang, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Greater St. Louis. "It's a mom-and-pop store. Oftentimes they're not fluent in English, so it'd be like a chicken trying to talk to a duck.
"They'll want to make a quarter per order, so they don't have the profit margin to hire a helping hand," Huang goes on. "For many years I've seen black dishwashers in a full-fledged restaurant, but never in a chop suey restaurant."
Huang says chop suey joints are rarely passed down from generation to generation and these days are just as likely to be helmed by Vietnamese refugees as ethnic Chinese.
"The kids don't want to operate the restaurants," he explains. "The kids have seen how hard their parents work, and they don't want to do it."
Huang's sentiment is seconded by Jack Lo, who works with his father at Bamboo Inn Chop Suey on Delmar Boulevard west of Kingshighway.
"I wouldn't be working here if I had the choice. I mean, look at it," says Lo, swinging the hinged bulletproof service window he uses to protect himself against robberies. "Not only is it dangerous, it's hard work, too. You got twelve-hour days and you're here six or seven days a week."
Lo's service window, a small hinged cube that fits into a larger sheet of bulletproof glass, is but one example of the most obvious sign of distrust between chop suey restaurateurs and their customers.
"There are a lot of bad people. They've broken my front window. They wanted inside. They've also tried to break in my back door," reports Huai Cheng, who owned Hing Lung Chop Suey on North Union Boulevard until he closed the restaurant last month out of frustration. "It's an awful life. I always call 911. I have it on tape but they never help. I've called the police almost thirty times in two years, but because I don't have good English, they don't help."
Weeks earlier, Cheng, a wiry 44-year-old with puffy eyes, had taken a moment from filling orders to let me in through the locked iron door separating Hing Lung's kitchen from its ordering area. In addition to the buckets of fried duck wings and cooked rice, the kitchen was equipped with several surveillance cameras. Cheng's wife, whom he declined to name, hovered nervously, awaiting customers.
Cheng's fears aren't unjustified. Henry Lu, who operated Hing Lung Chop Suey in the late 1990s, was shot dead there during a robbery on December 3, 1999.
"This is a jail," Chen said, sweeping his arm to indicate the kitchen. "I'm locked in; they're locked out."
"Why?" he responded incredulously. "I'm not crazy."
It wasn't always so. In the early twentieth century, St. Louis' Chinese and African-American communities often found themselves allied on the margins of white St. Louis.
"Many African Americans couldn't get loans from white bankers, so they came to rely on Chinese merchants to provide them loans," says Truman State historian Huping Ling. "The Chinese would also run businesses in African-American neighborhoods. Chestnut Valley [one of the city's historic African-American enclaves] was just north of Chinatown, so some Chinese, because of the police raids against the opium shops, would close their shops in Chinatown and reopen in Chestnut Valley."
But in the 1950s and '60s, social and economic forces conspired to drive a wedge between the two communities. From 1949 to 1953, under Mayor Joseph Darst's administration, St. Louis embarked on a massive urban-renewal project that would carve up the city with the construction of highways 55, 44, 40 and 70. Chestnut Valley was leveled, as was another African-American enclave, Mill Creek Valley, which stretched from Vandeventer Boulevard to the Mississippi River between Olive Street and the railroad tracks.
Dubbed the "Negro Removal Project" by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the city's relocation of its black population to north St. Louis was followed by the destruction of Hop Alley to make way for Busch Stadium, which opened in 1966.
"The wealthier population of St. Louis has always been running from poverty. No one ever says this, but one of the results of rebuilding the city was getting rid of a large and impoverished population that lived in blighted districts," says James Neal Primm, author of the seminal Lion of the Valley St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980. "They got rid of a lot of poor bad housing when they built Busch Stadium. The whole idea was to make St. Louis what it had been in the past: a leading city in the Midwest."
Nationally, other factors were at work to dislodge chop suey not only from its most-favored entrée status among St. Louis' African-American population but also from its place of honor at the broader American dinner table.
"1965 was really a watershed year," says UC-Irvine's Yong Chen, noting that virtually no Chinese were allowed to enter the U.S. from 1882 until the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and China was given a token quota. "Before , American immigration policies and laws favored European countries. Only 105 Chinese immigrants per year could enter the United States. China still couldn't send people here, but Taiwan and Hong Kong could."
The loosening of immigration policy dealt a devastating blow to the chop suey culture. The previously static Chinese-American population hailed almost exclusively from the province of Canton, and like the tightly controlled Chinese-American population, our very concept of Chinese food had been frozen ever since that mythical Chinese cook told his table full of appreciative miners that they were eating "chop suey."
After 1965 the ranks of Chinese Americans increasingly began to mirror mainland China, swelling with émigrés from Hunan, Szechuan and Peking (not to mention Taiwan and Hong Kong). Not only did the United States beckon to a broader Chinese cooking population, but there was an attendant broadening of the customer base. Abhorring a vacuum, Chinese restaurateurs rushed to cater to the expanded market.
Chop suey's death knell finally rang in 1972, when Richard Nixon became the first American president to travel to China. A hefty press corps was quick to recount to its stateside audience the particulars of Nixon's Chinese meals. A February 26, 1972, New York Times article titled "The Menus at Peking Banquets Didn't do Justice to the Foods" recounted that Nixon had enjoyed "that rarefied area of Chinese gastronomy classic cuisine."
The Times article noted that with few exceptions, the Nixons were treated to dishes that were never served in America. "The banquet stressed purity and elegance of taste and, particularly, texture. Shark's fin and almond junket are two examples of this, basically bland foods, which like the ancient eggs also served, delight the ultra-refined Chinese palate by their feel and subtlety rather than with the pyrotechnics of their preparation."
Says curator Cynthia Lee: "It kind of dawned on the American public that there's much more to Chinese cooking than what they've known. This kind of helped drive this desire for what's authentic."
As the nation's collective palate discovered the spicy dishes of Szechuan and the ethereal creations that are the hallmark of authentic Cantonese cooking, humble chop suey was pushed to the culinary margins, where it clings today.
Though chop suey can still be found in the heartland, it's virtually nonexistent on the coasts. Not coincidentally, the chop suey house tends to survive chiefly in Rust Belt ghettos that were untouched by the urban renewal of the 1960s and left behind by the new cosmopolitan economy.
Which is to say, you can get your fill of chop suey in north St. Louis.
"The city would not allow these places to exist in white neighborhoods," spits Alderman Charles Quincy Troupe. "Our people have to eat this bullshit."
Before he shuttered his shop, Huai Cheng offered an equally blunt assessment: "This food is just for the black people."
Chop suey may have been done in by President Nixon's trip to China, the transition to a more cosmopolitan economy and the liberalization of U.S. immigration policies. But the cuisine also had a philosophical enemy: the Frenchman Jacques Derrida, whose Of Grammatology, published in 1967, ushered in the postmodern age.
Unlike Socrates' platonic ideal or Kant's subjectivity, Derrida espoused the cheerful notion that everything we'd ever believed was wrong. Though ostensibly theorizing about the difference between speech and writing (for Derrida there was none), over the next 30 years his philosophy came to bear on virtually every aspect of modern life. It turned out those distinctions to which we'd assiduously clung differences between nations, cultures, ideas, cuisines were entirely arbitrary. Even notions we'd thought of as black and white the difference, say, between good and evil had been so influenced by one another that they were, if not indistinguishable, cut from the same metaphysical fabric.
It took a while for Derrida to trickle down to the realm of culinary thought, but trickle it did. Unlike the 1980s craze for "authentic" Chinese food, the rise of so-called fusion cuisine in the 1990s introduced diners to a topsy-turvy buffet of fajita spring rolls and canard à l'orange won tons. Chop suey perceived as a concoction without a culture was banished from the communal table.
Fusion cuisine created some memorable dishes, but diners eventually tired of a world without reference points. As revelations surfaced about the perils of industrial agriculture, people demanded to know what they were eating, and where it came from. And so the fusion fad gave way to our current obsession with organic and locally grown ingredients.
Which brings us to David Owens, executive chef and co-owner of the sleek Central West End hot spot Terrene. Though it's a mere two miles from the now-shuttered Hing Lung Chop Suey, Terrene might as well be on another continent, maybe even in another time. White-aproned waiters glide through its industrial-chic dining room with walls of exposed brick and tabletops made from Shetka Stone, which the menu informs diners is a "revolutionary product" made entirely of recycled paper. That same menu assures us Terrene uses organic ingredients and seafood harvested from sustainable sources and even goes so far as to list the farms that provide many of the restaurant's ingredients.
That very same lunch menu offers another local item: the St. Paul Sandwich. (Click here to watch Owens prepare one.)
"I always thought it was a really interesting dish," explains Owens, whose love affair with the St. Paul Sandwich was kindled just across the river in his hometown of Granite City, Illinois.
Owens starts his St. Paul by sautéing edamame sprouts and carrots in a small skillet. Finished in the kitchen's Salamander, the patty that emerges is more like an omelet than a puck. Owens' take on the St. Louis classic also features whole-wheat bread, red cabbage slaw and housemade bread-and-butter pickles.
The chef is careful not to overplay the sandwich, allowing it to quietly occupy a niche midway between comfort-food love and ironic kitsch. "In essence it's egg foo young on bread, but it's overall a better dish [than what you get at a chop suey house]," Owens says. "Do we sell enough to warrant it being on the menu? Maybe yes, maybe no, but I'm committed to the item. Even if we sold none, I'd keep it on the menu."
Plating one of his own just-off-the-grill St. Pauls, Owens isn't too concerned with the epistemology of the St. Paul. He believes his take on the dish could appeal to a wider market. "It's sort of a jazzed-up egg sandwich," he says. "I think if you took it anywhere and did it like we do it, you could sell it."