"Jewish Chop Suey... is our own name for a mixture of diced scallions, cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, and whatever else you like mixed with heavy sour cream." -- from Modern Kosher Meals by Mildred Bellin, 1934, p. 27.
"Farmer's Chop Suey: No one knows how this simple dairy salad came to be, but it has been a hot-weather favorite in Jewish-American kitchens for at least a century. Served with good pumpernickel or rye bread, it is a light, satisfying summer lunch." -- Blue Plate Specials by Jane and Michael Stern, 2001, p. 137
Similar recipes for the same salad, under the name Farmer's Chop Suey, appeared in The Jewish Sentinel Cook Book in 1936, and in Love and Knishes in 1956. "Our family made it with cottage cheese," said my cousin Merilyn. "I remember my mother making it," said my brother-in-law Jack. Both were thinking of the 1930s. My parents ate chopped vegetables with cottage cheese and sour cream too, but I never heard that name for it.
Why would this obviously Eastern-European dish acquire a name like "Farmer's Chop Suey"? Its only resemblance to standard Chop Suey is that there are chopped vegetables.
I heard of Farmer's Chop Suey while working on a talk I'm going to give next month titled "Who won the war between gefilte fish and chop suey?" It's about the popular topic of Jews and Chinese food, subject of various jokes, wisecracks, Yiddish puns, recipes, cookbooks, and annual articles about eating Christmas Dinner in a Chinese restaurant. My interest is in the interaction of two immigrant groups in America: the Jews and the Chinese, and in general in the history of Chinese food in America.
Surprisingly, I learned that the Jewish love of Chinese food goes back almost to the beginning of American Chinese restaurants in the 19th century and early 20th century. At this time, Chop Suey was virtually a synonym for Chinese food; as late as the 1950s, Chinese restaurants were often called Chop Suey Houses.
The book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States by Andrew Coe describes the origins of his title food -- contrary to popular impressions, the dish wasn't a joke played by the Chinese on Americans, but an honest reinterpretation of Cantonese home cooking. It was native to many of the early immigrants, and eventually adapted to the taste of American restaurant goers. Its popularity came and went for around 100 years. In the 1890s eating Chinese food was a sign of modern adventurousness. During prohibition, Chop Suey Houses offered live music and dancing -- alcohol had never been integral to Chinese food so it wasn't missed.
As a side effect of this popularity, all kinds of dishes became "so-and-so's Chop Suey." There was "Polish Chop Suey," "Italian Chop Suey," "American Chop Suey," etc. These were ethnic dishes that hardly resemble the Chinese dish. No one claims to remember exactly when or how a traditional Jewish chopped salad acquired the name "Jewish Chop Suey" or the maybe politer name "Farmer's Chop Suey," but it doesn't seem hard to imagine. But the existence of this dish speaks to the early adoption of Chinese food into Jewish life.
The 1934 book Modern Kosher Meals by Mildred Bellin included a wide variety of non-Jewish ethnic foods, as well as traditional ones. I mentioned the recipe for "Jewish Chop Suey." She also gave a recipe for standard Chinese Chop Suey, including soy sauce and water chestnuts; and one for "Chinese Soup," which is egg-drop soup. She wanted her readers to keep kosher without being old-fashioned; Chinese food was familiar enough for kosher cooks to want to make some at home. Adaptations of non-Jewish foods appear in many kosher cookbooks -- there are even a few exclusively kosher Chinese cookbooks, just as there are surprisingly many kosher Chinese restaurants. It's an interesting subject.
Maybe one of the strangest references to Farmer's Chop Suey is in the narrative of an elderly woman about a subject that fascinates some people: the death of the world-famous Houdini. The author was the widow of Dr. Daniel Cohn, who treated Houdini in a Detroit hospital during his last illness. Years after the event (which occurred in 1926) she wrote:
"Houdini told Daniel he was born in Hungary and was brought to the U.S. by his mother whom he adored all his life and his father, a rabbi. They settled in Appleton, Wisconsin where he and his siblings were raised.
"One evening while talking about his favorite foods, he said, 'I have a yen for Farmer's Chop Suey.' Farmer's Chop Suey, a dish familiar to most Jewish families, is made of chopped raw vegetables combined with sour cream. Daniel walked to a nearby delicatessen, returned with two portions and while they were eating, Houdini reminisced about his life. 'If I die, ' he said, 'don't be surprised if phony spiritualists declare a national holiday!' His disagreements with spiritualists had taken the form of many public battles." -- From "Houdini and My Husband"
In short, 75 to 100 years ago the identification of a Jewish dish as "Chop Suey" probably was one of many indications of widespread Jewish interest in Chinese food. The increasing frequency of Jews eating in Chinese restaurants reflected Jewish assimilation into American life and American foodways. While some Jewish leaders found the trend away from Jewish and kosher food alarming, by 1928 when a Yiddish journalist wrote an article titled "The War Between Chop Suey and Gefilte Fish" it was probably too late to do anything about it.