Saturday, October 04, 2008

As American as...Chop Suey?

Sarah Palin, after finishing the vice presidential debate without saying anything really stupid, has now declared that Barack Obama “pals around with terrorists.” Yep, American presidential politics are back on the moral high ground. Which is why I’m writing about something else--traditional American food such as chop suey and German chocolate cake. Besides, it gives me an excuse to use Edward Hopper’s wonderful painting, “Chop Suey.”

“As American as apple pie.” Of course, apple pie isn’t originally American. Wikipedia shows a 1381 English recipe, which suggests that people had been eating apple pie even earlier. But there are some American dishes which most Americans believe are foreign, but are far more American than apple pie.

You won’t find chop suey in China. And while it’s harder to find it in the United States today than twenty years ago, it’s an American, or Chinese-American dish. Its origins are unclear. I had read in a Time-Life book on the cooking of the Great West that it was first served in San Francisco. The phrase means “mixed pieces” in Cantonese, and seems to have originated with Chinese immigrants in California. The dish caught on with white Americans, and chop suey houses were common all over the United States by the turn of the last century. A recipe for chop suey can be found here.

After eating chop suey at a Chinese-American restaurant, you usually have a fortune cookie. Another Chinese-American invention, though it appears to be an adaptation of a Japanese recipe. Still, the fortune cookie as we know it was developed in America.

When Americans go to Germany and ask for German Chocolate Cake, they’re likely to get blank stares, or perhaps an explanation that the cake isn’t really German. In fact, if Samuel German had been, say, Samuel Irish, then it would have become Irish Chocolate Cake.

Samuel German was an Englishman, working for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. In 1852 he created a chocolate bar with extra cocoa butter, which became known as German’s Sweet Chocolate. A little more than a century later, a Texas housewife sent in a recipe for German’s Sweet Chocolate Cake to a Dallas newspaper. The cake itself may be older than that, but its first appearance in print was 1957.

Somewhere along the line, German’s was shortened to German, and thus Americans believed the cake originated in Germany. But it’s clearly from the American South, complete with that staple of Southern dishes, the pecan. The original German’s Chocolate Cake recipe can be found here. It’s a delicious cake. It’s just not German.


Charles Gramlich said...

I don't think I've ever had genuine chop suey.

Usman said...

For reasons, i don't know, I often wonder about the cusines of various countries; are they original to the place, adaptations etc.
I guess, we'll see more of these mixed or fusion foods in the years to come.

Elizabeth said...

O.K. That's the second time in a week that someone has told me the real origin of german chocolate cake. A former pastry chef, I never knew. My husband, a Swiss chef, made it the other day and claimed that it wasn't really German. Now your blog tells me as well. Oh, well. It's a wonderful diversion from politics and bank failures and impending catastrophe. Let us all eat cake!

steve said...

Charles-It's harder to find. I know I've had it as a child, but haven't ordered it at a Chinese Restaurant as an adult.

Usman--I'm always fascinated about foods and where they come from. With more countries becoming multi-ethnic, I'm sure more fusion foods are on the way. I've heard of Mexican/Korean fusion foods coming out of Los Angeles.

Elizabeth--Thank you. From what I understand, what we call Danish pastries are called Vienna bread in Denmark. And Enchiladas Suizas aren't Swiss, but named that because of all the dairy procucts that go into them. It's back to politics for my next post, but it's the politics of joy.

Shauna Roberts said...

Fascinating post—I love to read about food, particularly of the chocolate kind.