Back in 1981 when I was pregnant with my daughter I first sampled Chinese food, that is chop suey and chow mein. (The difference between chop suey and chow mein is simply the starch. Chop suey is served over rice, chow mein over deep fried rice noodles.) Back then we ate at several good chop sueys, as Cantonese restaurants used to be called, but sadly most of them have closed their doors. Of the restaurants I used to frequent, only Gilberts Chop Suey, in West Dundee, Illinois (http://www.gilberts-kitchen.com/) is still in business.
First served in the 1880s, chop suey and chow mein were popular dishes throughout the first half of the 20th century. Silent film star Buster Keaton even had his own recipe for chicken chow mein. In literature, chow mein was first mentioned in Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, but only the main character, Carol Kennicott from Minneapolis, is sophisticated enough to appreciate it; certainly the residents of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota are not. In the Disney film, Lady and the Tramp, Jim Dear must brave a blizzard in the middle of the night to get his pregnant wife, Darling, the chop suey she's craving. Fortunately for Jim Dear, Chinese restaurants were famous for staying open quite late.
Once beloved by all, chop suey and chow mein have fallen out of favor. In the 1960s and 1970s Hunan, Szechuan, and Mandarin restaurants opened and began offering spicier fare to the now more adventurous American palate. Though probably no more authentic, General Tso's chicken, moo shu pork, beef and broccoli, and kung pao shrimp have supplanted chop suey in Chinese American cuisine. Even Gilberts Chop Suey has added these newer Chinese dishes to its menu to accommodate the changing American taste in Chinese food. Many people have never even eaten good chop suey. Andrew Coe writes in Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States,"from the distance of a over a century, it's hard to understand the reasons behind chop suey's phenomenal popularity. To current tastes, the dish is a brownish, overcooked stew, strangely flavorless, with no redeeming qualities."
I live in Ohio now and have sampled chop suey in several restaurants, and it has all been vile, wretched stuff. But chop suey can be a delicious dish, and, anyone who's ever eaten good chop suey, understands why it was so popular. The difference between good chop suey and the vile stuff is the difference between home cooked southern fried chicken and chicken McNuggets. I think this has always been the case. Even in its heyday, chop suey could be a wretched, mushy stew, or it could be "wonderful, awe-inspiring, and yet toothsome," as the writer Theodore Dreiser once described it.
Every trip back to Chicago for me includes a stop at Gilberts, the only good extant chop suey that I know of. I start with one of Gilberts' giant crispy egg rolls stuffed with cabbage, pork, and shrimp. Next course is succulent won ton soup. Finally, some sizzling barbecue pork-fried rice and the pièce de résistance: fine cut chicken chow mein with crisp green vegetables and tender morsels of white meat chicken in a delicate sauce served with crunchy deep-fried noodles. Delicious. Turns out my favorite Chinese meal was also eaten by Jonas Salk. According to Jennifer 8. Lee in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,Salk ate the exact same lunch (won ton soup, egg roll, rice, and chicken chow mein) at the Bamboo Garden near the University of Pittsburgh almost every day while he was working on the polio vaccine. Great minds and all.
My daughter took this picture of Gilbert's chicken chow mein and egg roll on New Year's Eve. Since I live too far away to get a regular fix at Gilberts, I've learned to make chicken chow mein, chock full of vegetables, at home.
Chicken Chow Mein (Four to Six Servings)
1 pound chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 Tbsp. peanut oil
2-4 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 cup chicken broth
4 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 celery stalks, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups bok choy, diced the same size as the celery--get plenty of the green leaves along with the stalks
8 oz mushrooms, sliced--use the caps and discard the stems
8 oz mung bean sprouts
crispy rice noodles--the thinnest you can find. I use China Boy, the La Choy being too thick.
In a small bowl, whisk together the chicken broth and cornstarch. Set aside. Heat 2 Tbsp. peanut oil in a wok or large skillet. Add the chicken pieces and cook until no longer pink. Remove to a bowl (not the one that contains the chicken broth mixture) and set aside.
To the wok add 2 Tbsp. peanut oil. Add the celery, onions, and bok choy and cook for three minutes. Add the mushrooms and bean sprouts. Cook five minutes. Add the chicken and 2-4 Tbsp. soy sauce. Cover and cook five minutes. Stir in the chicken broth and cornstarch mixture, and cook until thickened. Serve on a bed of crispy rice noodles.
Notes: The vegetables should be crisp, not limp, but cooked through. You may want to test the bite of the celery before adding the chicken and adjust the remaining cooking time accordingly. Also, if you like them, you can substitute water chestnuts or bamboo shoots for some of the other vegetables. One more thing: If you need to jazz this up a bit, you can always use the tried-and-true-Chinese method, MSG (Accent). Just add 1/2 tsp. with the soy sauce.