I was thinking the other day, “I’d like some Chop Suey like Mom used to make. Except, you know, good.” Jo did not shine in the kitchen. Her recipes are not recipes anybody would greet with delight. Although in my family’s defense, my cousin Russ who used to be the food editor at the LA Times, says one of the paper’s most requested recipes was Grandma Smith’s cranberry sauce, which always boggles my mind because my memories of Grandma Smith are of her eating raw hamburger and missing part of her thumb which had come off in a basement door incident.
Where was I? Right, food my mama used to make.
I have no idea why I yearn for this food. It’s not like I had a happy childhood. So what draws me back to Jo’s bean soup with dumplings (doughy and terrible) and roast-carrots-and-potatoes (overcooked) and Chop Suey (the Chinese would spit)? Look, my mom worked six days a week, and for my father, to boot, so it’s not like she had time to scan through Gourmet Magazine or whisk a cream sauce. The woman was exhausted 24/7, and that was before she got home to me and my brother, fighting and screaming. (My brother is a lovely man and we’re just fine now, no worries.). And she kept us alive, even if she looked with suspicion on any veg that wasn’t a potato, a carrot, a bean, a celery stalk, or an onion. And yet, even with the memory of pale gravy and gray meat, every now and then, I start to crave the food of my childhood.
This week it’s Chop Suey.
I know Chop Suey is not Chinese cuisine. Most of the blogs I’ve looked at call it Chinese American cuisine which I figure is a cute way of saying, “A bunch of American housewives thought this is what Chinese cooking was.” That was definitely my mother’s approach. I think she might have put water chestnuts in, which was a complete waste because my father, brother, and I ate around them. Otherwise, it was beef broth and beef (tough but cut into small chunks) with mushrooms and onions and celery over those crispy noodles whose name I have forgotten. But I really loved my mother’s Chop Suey. If you ignored the meat which was like little pillows of Nerf, the broth and veggies were salty and tasty and the crunchy noodles were divine.
I think Jo’s Chop Suey is where I picked up my undying love of celery cooked in salty broth. I put celery in everything; it’s 90% water so it’s non-fattening and it never fails to be unobtrusively delicious. My basic starter for an meal is celery, onion, and mushroom. Stir fry? Sure, celery, onion, and mushroom. Cashew chicken? Absolutely, celery, onion, and mushroom. Noodle soup? You bet, celery, onion, and . . . I made brownies the other day and had to restrain myself from reaching for vegetable crisper. (In my defense, I have other basic combos, like shallots, peppercorns, white wine, and heavy cream, which I could probably live on, but not for Chop Suey. I’m not insane.)
So I looked up Chop Suey on the net and here’s a fun fact: chop suey appears to be “whatever your mother threw in the pot.” Seriously, all these food blogs with “My mother’s Chop Suey” are all different. Plus some of them call for rice. I was appalled. Those little crunchy noodles are an essential part of the whole drippy Chop Suey experience. I love rice, I eat tons of rice, but not with Chop Suey. My god, what are they thinking?
On the other hand, I could see where my mother’s habit of tossing in a can of Campbell’s beef broth and hoping for the best was not going to cut it. Neither was dumping all the veggies into the broth and boiling the hell out of them with the meat. I have some standards. Plus Chop Suey is an excellent way to get vegetables into me, so in addition to the essential celery, mushroom, and onion, there should be garlic (there should always be garlic), and snow peas, and bok choy (my answer to water chestnuts which I still can’t stand) and possibly some cabbage and a carrot if I have some lying around. Which is when I realized I was basically making stir fry and then throwing in some beef broth and dumping it all on crispy noodles.
This is one of the big ah-ha moments from the months-long experiment I’ve been making with meal services: There are basically only about about a dozen recipes in the world (cooking, not baking) and everything is just a variation on those. Meat with pan sauce, stir fry, stew, oven roasted veg, you can change some of the ingredients, but it’s pretty much the same recipes over and over again. So my mother wasn’t that far off the path with her basic repertoire.
Which brings me back to her Chop Suey. The problem with messing with a remembered recipe is that then it doesn’t taste like you remembered it. OTOH, my mother’s Chop Suey was a mixed memory, so what I had to do was isolate the good stuff. What I really wanted was hot, salty beef broth with celery and mushrooms over crunchy noodles, but if that’s what I made, I wouldn’t like it, it would be too bland. It had to be hot, salty beef broth with celery and mushrooms and onion and garlic (everything is better with garlic) and maybe oyster sauce instead of the soy sauce I remember my mother pumping into the broth, and possibly some sesame oil. And marinate the beef and sear it until it’s still rare and then let it rest and finally cut into squares and put it in the finished stir fry so it stays rare. And add a little cornstarch so the beef broth gets some body to it, although I’ve heard potato starch is even better for thickening so I ordered some of that. But, I decided, no carrots. I like carrots but not in Mom’s Chop Suey 2019. Chop Suey should be pale green and brown, like our living room carpet was, not orange.
So what I ended up with was more Chop Memory than Chop Suey, but it was good. It made me think of watching black and white TV and the knotty pine cabinets in our old kitchen and that green carpet in the living room, none of which I really wanted to remember, but the broth was salty and the celery was delicious and I could go face down into those crunchy noodles which have no nutritional value whatsoever but who cares?
Tomorrow I’m making stroganoff, another comfort meal. My mother never made stroganoff–sour cream was for fancy people–but I made it all the time when Mollie was growing up.
I wonder if Mollie ever thinks, “I’d like some stroganoff, like my mother used to make, except, you know, good.”
Anybody have memories of your mom’s cooking you want to share? Good or bad, we don’t judge.