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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: January 27, 2021

Grandma's Specialty

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,



**********


When I grew up in the late '50's and early 60's, we seldom ate in a restaurant. We weren't deprived, our friends didn't eat out much either. One consequence of this was eating at someone else's house was a treat, because we often got something not in our household rotation.

My absolute favorite meal at my Grandma Thibodeau's little house on Nocquebay St. was â€chop suey.†She'd bring a very big pot, full to the top, to the dining room table along with a bowl of white rice. Her chop suey was very dark, almost black, with a shimmering sauce. It was intensely salty, and full of â€exotic to us†ingredients like bean sprouts. We ate German/Swiss â€midwestern†at home, so this meal of what we called â€oriental†food was an adventure.

There was no recipe for this dish in her hand-written cook book, but my Mom wrote down the verbal directions Grandma gave years ago, which are scant on quantities. I haven't had Grandma's specialty in many years, so last week I decided to whip up a batch to surprise Mom.

After guess-timating amounts of pork and beef, chopped fine and browned, I added the called-for cans of beansprouts and mixed Chinese vegetables, hoping can sizes haven't changed. These ingredients are then put in a pot which is filled with water to cover and baked for three hours. I hesitated at this point. Three hours at 350 for meat already browned and canned vegetables? I decided to stick with the recipe. After the baking, I was directed to thicken the sauce with cornstarch with water until it is â€like gravy†(another pause to think on my part,) and then add soy sauce and bead molasses until â€nice and dark.†Since we try to avoid excess sodium I watched warily as I shook the soy sauce bottle for what seemed like ten minutes; then added about a l/3 of the jar of bead molasses. The resulting sauce was medium brown, not black like I remembered, but I didn't want to get put on blood pressure medicine, so I quit at that.

The result was a very soft textured stew, strongly salty with a pleasant but bland taste. Nothing about it reminded me of Asian food as I know it now, but it was fairly close to what I remembered, and when Mom had some she confirmed if I had just added more bead molasses, like 2/3 of a jar, I'd have nailed it.

Curious about my German Grandmother making an â€oriental†dish I went on line. What I found explained everything. In Chinese, the two characters for chop suey are â€Shap Sui†meaning, mixed small bits or odds and ends. It is believed the dish was invented in San Francisco, when Chinese laborers flooded the city bustling with activity related to the gold rush. According to a legend, a group of miners went to a restaurant to eat late at night and being out of most food, the owner scraped some plates into a pot, threw in what he had left, and doused the whole thing with soy sauce. The miners loved it. (Reminded me a lot of the story of how buffalo chicken wings were invented!)

The dish, apparently not â€oriental†at all, but created here in the United States, spread across the country (hopefully without scraping plates into it) in the 1920's and by 1950 American housewives were making this often for their family since it was filling, inexpensive and made a lot. By the late 60's, however, the dish faded into obscurity as more authentic Asian fare became popular. You are highly unlikely to find chop suey on a restaurant menu today.

The criticism I have of the chop suey grandma made from my 60+ year perspective now is that the canned vegetables are really limp and mushy and the taste is bland. But a quick search reveals some updated recipes that evoke the 1950 chop suey but use fresh vegetables and a different sauce, something I may try sometime.

I had no idea when I was feasting on Grandma's chop suey around 1960 that there was virtually nothing authentic about it. Nor did I care then what my sodium intake was. But the memory I have of this food is one of the clearest I have of Grandma Thibodeau, so I'll keep the recipe and make it every now and then in her honor. Mom and I had a really nice lunch of chop suey together, reminiscing and laughing, and that is worth a lot too.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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