Chop Suey & Table Fellowship: A Meditation

Chop Suey & Table Fellowship: A Meditation September 14, 2021




Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?” “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.” So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert

Sundays Jan & I spend the night at Jan’s mom’s house in Tujunga. Occasionally I cook, but mostly we go out to dinner. A bit of a treat for all of us.

While she’s lived in the LA area for well beyond seventy years, like most of us, her preferences were formed long before coming to SoCal. Mom’s tastes in food were formed growing up white working class in Detroit and then through High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Jan & I come from a different generation and were raised in California in the midst of a culinary explosion. Our tastebuds have been honed by variety. Not to mention fresh ingredients…

So finding places that work for all of us is a bit of an adventure. Add in that we don’t range terribly far from mom’s home, and, well… We mostly eat a variety of Middle Eastern aligned, largely served up in Armenian kitchens, Mexican, mostly at a modest family restaurant near by, and then the odd somewhere else, occasionally ranging back to Eagle Rock, where mom raised her family, to eat where she first experienced Lasagna, and against which she’s never found an equal for her.

This week we went out on a limb and opted for Chinese. Turns out I’m a bit of a problem for the family in this regard, as I appear to have views about what constitutes acceptable Chinese cooking. Not especially well informed, but that’s not stopped me from having views.

We ended up at a nice place in Montrose, well within our normal geographical range. They offer up what feels like hipsters who have grandma’s recipes. And I suspect the full bar is part of their deal.

As we were trying to find dishes we all would be okay with mom said “I like chow mien and Chop Suey.” Immediately I said, “We don’t eat Chop Suey.” And there it was. Too late to retrieve.

A bit of unpleasantness on the table. (Not even going to speaking on Jan’s behalf…)

She chose chow mein. Which interestingly, was the least successful of what was otherwise pretty good. Definitely a go back to restaurant.

Later settled into our room at mom’s, I went online to read up on what Chop Suey really is. It has quite the back story. And, absolute uncertainty as to its origins. Which, well, is something I tend to like.

Wikipedia offers quite a review of origin stories. Maybe it’s origins are in Chinese American kitchens at the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth centuries. But, variations are offered across the diaspora, including but probably not limited to the Philippines, Canada, Germany, India, and Polynesia. Lots of Chop Sueys out there…

There is a Chinese dish made with entrails that could be a distant ancestor. There’s a great mythic story where it was made in honor of a visiting Chinese dignitary, Li Hongzhang, in order to offer a dish that would work for both Chinese and American tastes. Wikipedia, however, informs us he traveled with three chefs just to make sure he didn’t have to deal with such things. But, it made good advertising copy for local Chinese restaurants.

Among the more plausible origins, again according to Wikipedia, “anthropologist E. N. Anderson, a scholar of Chinese food, traces the dish to tsap seui (杂碎, “miscellaneous leftovers”), common in Taishan (Toisan), a county in Guangdong province, the home of many early Chinese immigrants to the United States.” They offer a second source confirming this.


But, well, who knows?


Chop Suey to me is a mess of vegetables and some meat stir fried, then tossed with a viscus sauce and poured over rice. I have vaguely unpleasant memories from childhood of that sauce that makes my tongue feel bad.

But. Beyond my reactive snobbishness, I violated a principal rule for my life. I don’t judge people’s food. And if its what they want, I try to eat it. And if it’s at all possible to say something nice. And its almost always possible to say something nice.

Maybe for me the source of this for me is as a holdover from my natal Christian upbringing, and specifically “table fellowship.”

The Christian story is filled with examples of Jesus eating with any old person. Often they’re unsavory characters. Even bankers. He seemed to have no standards.

The central commemorative act of the Christian churches is a reenactment of a meal.

It’s endlessly fascinating for me that a turning in the divisions of the emergent Jesus movement was table fellowship.

Who gets to eat together.

Who gets to eat together?

As is always the case in such things, it’s more complicated. In some ways. In other ways, well, bread is god, rice is god.


Me, while I do not believe the religion about Jesus that Paul and others began, I do believe in table fellowship. Along, I don’t mind adding, a whole boatload of things that we’ve saved that Jesus appears to have said.

You eat what you’re served.

Never, never insult, mock, or otherwise demean someone else’s tastes in food.

You praise it. And you praise the people who made it and the people who served it.

I failed. And, I regret it.

If we’re eve going to make it as a species, I suspect it will be when we’re willing to sit down with other people and eat together. Each of us concerned that the other gets enough, is enjoying themselves, and, is happy.

My plan is the next time we go to that restaurant for my choice will be chop suey. A bit late. But we do what we can.

Table Fellowship.

The path to inner and outer peace.


And… As long as we mentioned Filipino Chop Suey, here you go…

The image above is from Guadalupe, California, on the California central coast. 


Browse Our Archives