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American Chop Suey

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To my mind, this is a quintessential New England dish, still found on every school lunch program menu and undoubtedly served in many homes. I have seen it fixed many ways, including "Chop Suey South of the Border" on a restaurant's Mexico Night menu.

When it is good, it is well worth eating, but many version are terrible. Do any of you have a particularly delicious recipe you would be willing to share? Do you know a restaurant in New England whose version is especially tasty?

Pat G.

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  1. Pat: other than elbow macaroni (an all-American brand like Mueller's), ground beef, and tomato sauce (a cheap one from the jar), what other recipe is there? Just posers, I think.

    American chop suey is New England-style Depression food, pure and simple.

    The best part about ACS is that it gets better every time you reheat it and it gets drier and drier.

    FWIW, my aunt made something for us called Boo-Boo that was nothing more than ACS with canned peas mixed in. Actually pretty good. It took me years to figure out where the name came from.

    1. My mother used tomato sauce, but I think it tastes better if it is less red, so I use canned tomatoes instead. She called it goulash, too.

      Sauté the ground beef or pork until it is done, drain any excess grease. Add diced onions and 2 or more chopped cloves of garlic per pound of meat, cook until soft. Season with black and red pepper, two tablespoons paprika, oregano and basil, crushed fennel seed, and a bayleaf. Add 1 can of tomatoes and smash up. Add a can of water, boil, add a teaspoon of salt and 1 1/2 cups of elbow macaroni (I don't measure this). Stir occasionally, when the noodles are done, add more salt, if desired, and a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Serve with grated parmesan. Also good with a little sour cream mixed in.

      For leftovers, put into an oven dish, pack down. Pour over bechamel sauce, put on a layer of shredded cheddar cheese, and bake at 350 until browned.

      1. Somewhere along the line the American Chop Suey of my youth acquired the nick-name, Slumgullion. But the recipe for our family's version didn't change:

        Ground beef
        chopped onions and celery (and garlic, if feeling particularly sophisticated)
        We say, "No thank you" to green pepper.
        canned tomatoes (not sauce)
        cooked elbow macaroni
        salt and pepper
        worchestershire sauce
        dash of hot sauce, if you like it

        Brown the beef, drain and set aside
        In same pan with a bit of cooking oil brown the chopped vegetables, add back the meat and
        a can or two of plain canned tomatoes
        that have been chopped, including the juice. Season at this point. Stir in cooked macaroni.
        Taste, adjust seasoning.

        The macaroni is what stretches this dish to feed a lot of people cheaply. We like it sort of "soupy", and sometimes add addtional tomato juice to get the solid/liquid ratio we want. Serve with a hunk of homemade or other good bread for dunking.

        That's how we do it. Pat

        4 Replies
        1. re: Pat Hammond
          Pat Goldberg


          Slumgullion, or Slum, was the name used by WWI Doughboys for a similar dish, sometimes made with pasta, but sometimes served over mashed potatoes. See link. There seem to be far more variants listed under this name than under American Chop Suey", although your recipe is an impeccable rendition of the latter.

          I am sure Bob W. is correct that it was common fare during the Depression, as were many other dishes of that ilk, but it pretty clearly predates the Depression as a dish. My 1939 Maine Rebekahs Cook Book has a recipe for it (over spaghetti, not elbows, that may account for its name). It also has two recipes simply called chop suey. One involves spaghetti, cabbage, catsup, and onion; the other more "oriental" in nature, involving diced meat, onions, celery, canned bean sprouts, cornstarch, brown sugar, and soy sauce. In the latter case, no mention is made of what startch to serve it with.

          Pat G.

          Link: http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/food.htm

          1. re: Pat Goldberg

            Pat, Thanks for that fascinating link and the explanation to an old family mystery. I wonder about that doughnut recipe. It sounds very easy and should produce a nice plain doughnut. Pat

            1. re: Pat Goldberg

              I have a 1959 Maine Rebekahs Cook Book from my mother in law. We read it for fun. One of the worse recipes found therein is Haddock Smudge. Basically, you boil haddock for an hour in lots of butter. Ugh. Prob. ends up like paste. Must make the house smell good.

              But I love the book. No directions, only ingredient lists really. Everyone already knew how to cook, I guess.

            2. re: Pat Hammond

              My god, If there was ever a dish that deserved to die it would be SLUMGULLION, the most hated food of my youth, even worse than liver cooked to shoeleather.

              One of the depression style ground meat lots of filler type of dishes my parents habitually served (another ver similar dish was hamburger chile with kidney beans)

              It almost ruined italian ragu for me by association...

            3. My mother always used a can of condenced tomato soup, instead of tomato sauce. Which on the face of it is odd as she made *great* sauce, but ACS was always a saturday-lunch-for-the-kids kind of thing.
              I haven't had this for a longgggg time, hmmmm......

              1. Growing up in the midwest my family called this dish Eatmore. Still argue with my husband that Eatmore is its proper name. Both of us make it the same using Campbell's Tomato Soup rather than canned tomatoes or tomato sauce, no green peppers either.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Diane

                  In Columbus Ohio it's referred to as Johnny Marzetti

                2. We had it in Philly too only it was called 'Meat and Macaroni', "Chili Mac' or "Eyetalian goulash'.

                  1. If you're too beat to make the stuff, I'd recommend Cole Farms in Gray, ME. They make a decent version that I remember eating years ago. It came in its own crock (like their baked beans) and is/was the closest to my grandmother's recipe I've ever tasted.

                    1. I guess my midwestern family is rather non-imaginative, we call it elbows.

                      It's made it from ground beef, onion, garlic, chicken boullion, crushed red pepper flakes, canned tomatoes and elbow macaroni (of course).

                      My father didn't like it so it became a treat when we would spend the night at my grandmother's house.

                      I find it funny that no one has mentioned that Chop Suey is American to begin with.

                      1. And I thought my mother invented Slumgullion in the forties. She used ground beef, tomato soup, onions, green peppers and, the finishing touch, crumbled bacon. Served over rice or even as a cold sandwich it brings back memories.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Mike

                          And here I thought "slumgullion" referred to any kind of basic, inelegant stew. At our house we use the term for, well, half the things we make.

                          1. re: C. Fox

                            So that's where the term "slumgullion" comes from... it's what my Dad used it to call his favorite summer dish: fresh chopped tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, summer squash, onion, celery, garlic cloves all simmered on the stove until it was cooked. He'd put a huge pat of butter on it with salt and pepper. I can still see him eating it with great relish at the kitchen table.
                            AMC was always a staple in our household and still is today. My Mom would slow cook it in her countertop electric skillet that she got with S&H Green Stamps.
                            I use lean ground pork along with chopped sirloin. The pork gives it more flavor, and always... wait to eat until day two, better if it's a day old. Of course, served with Portuguese rolls from Silva's in Hudson, MA. Stick-to-your-ribs kinda meal!

                        2. American Chop Suey is exactly what we called it when it was a staple at Girl Scout camp. The ingredients were browned chopped meat, elbow macaroni or spaghetti, tomato sauce, and possibly green pepper, celery, and worcestershire. Delicious when cooked in a huge pot over a fire in the woods and served to ravenous kids, it's something we wouldn't think of making/eating at home.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: M-L.

                            I forgot -- chopped ONIONS.

                          2. I bet I could call this dish "gomiti bolognese" and charge $17 for it at Ciao Bella.

                            1. My fondest memories of ACS....after dinner was over and everyone was settled in for the night, grabbing a bowl....wait I didn't use a bowl, I just grabbed a spoon and went for the now cold leftovers. Mom made it with tomato paste, tomatoes and chopped onion, peppers, and celery. The only spice she ever used was onion salt.

                              Didn't you all know that's where "Hamberger Helper" comes from?

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: othervoice

                                Yup on the eating it cold but, and I'm sure this comes as no big surprise, if you actually made enough of it, way better the next day!

                              2. Considering 555 in Portland charges something ridiculous for lobster mac-n-cheese, you probably could get $25 for ACS with the addition of ground veal.

                                1. These days we make it mostly without meat - but always with sauteed chopped onions and green peppers and celery. Canned whole tomatoes (cut up into smaller bits by hand) and of course elbows (slightly undercooked). Blend the ingredients and seasonings - salt, pepper, and crushed fennel seed - allow to absorb into the macaroni for a few minutes on the burner. Voila! On my own dish, I'll probably add a touch of crushed red pepper flakes.

                                  1. I do mine w. ground turkey breast, onions peppers, cayenne pepper and paprika in a frying pan. There's no grease w. the turkey so no need to drain! Add cooked gemelli pasta & some cans of campbells tomato soup and a bay leaf or two!

                                    Even better the next day when you come home after a cold snowy day!

                                    1. This was one of my favorite meals that my mom made when I was growing up. It was called Goulash in our house.
                                      I had never heard of it being called American Chop Suey until I made it for my husband once before we were married and that's what he called it.
                                      Once in a while, when broke or nearly so, I'll still make it...but it doesn't taste as good as I remember from my childhood. Either my mom had some sort of secret I haven't cracked, or my palate just changed.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: vermontpoet

                                        It was always goulash at my house. Ground beef, onions, canned tomatoes, and macaroni. The macaroni was not cooked separately, either. Mike says it's not goulash unless it has corn in it, but my mom said she doesn't make it with corn because it reminds her too much of what Gram would make with all the leftover stuff in the refrigerator.

                                        1. re: revsharkie

                                          It was American Chop Suey in my house growing up.

                                          Brown a pound of ground beef, with chopped onion and green pepper.
                                          Add a can of tomatoes, diced, whole or pureed, whatever was on hand.
                                          Boil the elbows, add to hambuger mix, salt, pepper, voila!

                                          When I married an Italian, who would only have a proper Sunday gravy, that was the end of AMC. Now that everyone is grown and gone out of the house, I make it once in awhile for myself.

                                          Great little meal, and done in no time!

                                          1. re: mcel215

                                            American Chop Suey was a quick supper when I was growing up in northern New England. I've not heard that term elsewhere. In Maine diner-type places it's still popular. We call it Slumgullion, too, and like it on the soupy side.

                                          2. re: revsharkie

                                            yep, it was goulash in our house too. Chop Suey was made using the canned chop suey mixture from La Choy and serving it over rice :)

                                        2. Chop Suey in America - and Canada - may go back to Chinese railroad worker in the 1800s according to Silvia Lovegren in Fashionable Food - Seven Decades of Food Fads. She writes that it was so popular in New York in the 20s that there was even a popular niteclub song "Who'll Chop Your Suey When I'm Gone?" Lovegren gives a common recipe from the 20s that included bean sprouts, 2 entire heads of celery and Worcestershire sauce.
                                          Guess the recipe changed a great deal from that to the elbow macaroni version.

                                          7 Replies
                                          1. re: MakingSense

                                            My mother made it with shells and bell pepper and called it Spanish Noodles. I loved it so much as a child I drew pictures of it cooking in the pot!

                                            1. re: MakingSense

                                              "American chop suey" is a regional term for a ubiquitous dish. However, I'd hazard to guess it only shares a linguistic connection with chop suey. You are correct that Chinese(Cantonese)railroad workers disseminated this Americanized misapprehension of traditional fare(bastardized due to general scarcity of product and the American palate). However, "real" chop suey has no direct correlation to elbow macaroni, ground beef, and tomato sauce, etc.

                                              1. re: aelph

                                                You may be saying the same thing, I'm not sure, but it bears repeating; neither ACS nor "Chinese-Am"chop suey are Chinese. It's akin to corn beef & cabbage, an Irish-Am invention. Nor is there any connection between slumgullion and ACS, other than by misnomer

                                                1. re: aelph

                                                  You gotta figure that large numbers of Chinese railroad workers - male laborers, stuck in the middle of America in the 1860s - had to cook something with little equipment and whatever they could find to give them a taste of home. It certainly wasn't going to be very Chinese. The further away they were from the coasts, the less likely it was to be "real." It was even further bastardized by American restaurants and home cooks. Probably the only thing Chinese about now it is the "name" and the ties to American and Chinese-American history.
                                                  Was the name itself made up? Is there even any such Chinese dish?

                                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                                    allow me to iterate:

                                                    "American chop suey"

                                                    is a regional term perhaps riffing on that always already Americanized by-product "chop suey"

                                                    This same dish is redundant across the states; elbow mac, ground beef, tomato sauce. I'm not casting aspersions; I enjoy the occasional Stouffer's *American chop suey* product.

                                                    The point is: "American chop suey" is a colloquial term: this exact dish exists all over the continental US...and, being a Texan(fyi)...it just is what it is..no cutesy...borderline omg anti-pc terms apply...we'd have elbow mac, grd bf, and tm sc for dinner and not think twice...godforbid we didn't have a (cutesy....vaguely racist)name for it...those crazy East Coasters!

                                                    Chop Suey proper...oy vey

                                                    is as far as I know

                                                    the most base of "Chinese" foodstuffs

                                                    no beef...no tomatoes..no elbow mac

                                                    instead, mainly, corn(or potato) starch, soy(preferrably light Chinese), gawd...celery, oh...screw it...this original dish began as a means to feed the workers(and their benighted compatriots) of the diaspora and methodically devolved into what that unfortunately-possible demographic of the "American" enjoys: salt, goop, and recognizable meat....no new flavors allowed.

                                                    1. re: aelph

                                                      My grandpa owned and cooked in Chinese restaurants for over 70 years. He made chop suey with bean spouts and various meats, but never with ground beef or macoroni. He use to make a dish similar to the American Chop Suey as described, but it was never for customers and we called it a tomato beef mac and cheese. We loved it, but that was American food, NOT Chinese food to us. A more common way to refer to it would be slop. Kinda like fajitas, it was just the leftovers for the most part, recooked.

                                                    2. re: MakingSense

                                                      The "chop" in chop suey means "miscellaneous" in Cantonese. The "suey" means "little pieces." Thus, it's really a dish of "miscellaneous little pieces." This is really a general term for a dish where the cook really throws in whatever they have on hand. It's something you could conceivably find in a house, where the cook is trying to use up all the ingredients before they spoil. The dish is linked to American-Cantonese history, and Chinese from other regions of China usually would have no idea what the dish would be. There are anecdotal stories of enterprising Chinese restaurants offering "Genuine San Francisco-style chopy suey" to American soldiers stationed in China during World War II.

                                                      The closest dish in American cooking would be a casserole. Whoever is cooking it puts in whatever he/she wants. There is no single recipe for a casserole, and there is no such thing as an "authentic" casserole. Calling a chop suey dish "authentic" would probably perplex most Cantonese speakers. Imagine if you visited a American-style restaurant in China that offered an "authentic American casserole."

                                                      In that vein, I don't think there's anything wrong with the term "American chop suey." It has historically been about using American-grown products in a dish that has no traditional form. Frankly, IMHO, using ground beef, macaroni, diced veggies, etc., could be described accurately as "miscellaneous little pieces."

                                                2. The 04/07 issue of Saveur magazine has a recipe for it from the Agawam Diner in Rowley, MA. I made it (sans cinnamon) and it was good!

                                                  1. My only experience with the stuff was Cape Cod public schools, 1970-1978. We never had it at home and honestly, I don't remember having it at anyone else's or on any restaurant or diner menu on the Cape or anywhere else in NE. Maybe it was a holdover from earlier popularity? "Hamburger Helper" was just coming into vogue, maybe that supplanted this other stuff?

                                                    1. We always had it at school and at home. My nickname at boarding school was tapeworm because 1) I was skinny as a rail and 2) on ACS day I'd have six or seven very large helpings of it (think two to three large serving bowls full).

                                                      Always with cinnamon and celery. An earlier poster said this was merely a locus-based name for a ubiquitous North American dish, I think cinnamon and celery set this apart.

                                                      When I make my own I usually put a bit of pepperoni in.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: sailormouth

                                                        It's a permanent "comfort food" menu item at The Loft in North Andover, Ma.

                                                        Loft Restaurant
                                                        1140 Osgood St, North Andover, MA 01845

                                                      2. I've always just called it Beefy Noodles (or Turkey Noodles). I never heard the name American Chop Suey until recently on a Food Network show about diners. The host had never heard the name ACS either.

                                                        In my version, after browning the meat and onions, and seasoning, I add stewed tomatoes, canned tomato sauce, Campbell's condensed beef broth (undiluted), and V-8 juice. Then I put the macaroni in dry (I prefer shells to elbows) and cook, covered, until the liquid is absorbed. Cooking the noodles in the liquid is what makes it good. Finish with Kraft parmesan/romano cheese food, in the green shaker can.

                                                        I also sometimes make my mother's Spanish Rice, which is basically the same kind of thing, but with green peppers and rice instead of noodles. My mom also made something that she called Irish Spaghetti, which was boiled rigatoni with canned stewed tomatoes poured over it and more Kraft cheese food powder, this time the lurid yellow American kind.

                                                        1. Where you can get decent "American Chop Suey" the old-fashioned way without it all doctored up is at the Cornerview Restaurant in Concord NH. They generally serve it only on Wednesdays and it is normally sold out quickly, given it is a favorite item on their menu. Google for their number and see when else they might serve it but it is quite good.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: ethibault

                                                            ethibault, American Chop Suey is usually served at the Webster NH ham and bean suppers. Starting in July, they run every sat for about 6 weeks. The ad is in the Concord Monitor. I used to make it at home almost every week. Leftovers are even better.

                                                          2. Growing up in Cambridge Mass (Central Square), my mother always made American Chop Suey the night after she made meatloaf. She would chop up the cold meatloaf in a frying pan, add celery and onions, andstewed tomatoes and then the elbow macaroni would be mixed in. Great dish.

                                                            1. Over six years old and still getting replies! I think we have a winner here in the "oldest active thread" event!

                                                              And don't forget Johnny Marzetti.

                                                              8 Replies
                                                                1. re: susabella

                                                                  It's a Midwestern name for what we New Englanders call American Chop Suey. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_M...

                                                                  1. re: BobB

                                                                    I like our version better, Bob!

                                                                    1. re: susabella

                                                                      The only real difference is that they tend to add cheese to it. Personally, I add handfuls of chopped jalapeños to mine!

                                                                      1. re: BobB

                                                                        You must be a transplanted westerner, that's heresay in New England!

                                                                        1. re: susabella

                                                                          Nope, Bostonian born and bred. Just somehow turned into a chilihead along the way. That capsaicin is addictive stuff!

                                                                2. re: BobB

                                                                  Must say, I'm grateful for this oldest active thread. Vacationing atm in Rangeley ME. Noticed American Chop Suey in three places since Saturday--2 here in Rangeley and one in NH on the way here. While I see it's a dish I've made many times myself (but we called it Mush, a name I haven't seen on this board yet!!), I have never encountered it by this name, in spite of many summers spent in ME and much time spent in Cambridge MA, where my mother grew up.

                                                                  So thanks, all, for the elucidation!

                                                                  1. re: altobarb

                                                                    Not even close, LOL.
                                                                    Someone resurrected a thread on Western Massachusetts from 1997 on the New England board a couple.of weeks ago! http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/157414#


                                                                3. I love American Chop Suey. I brought it left-over to work one day and no one had ever heard of it. Guess that's because I'm a New England girl living near Seattle.

                                                                  I use scrambled hamburger with onion (powder or minced), whatever pasta is in the kitchen (elbows, shells), a can of Campbell's Tomato soup and a small can of tomato paste. When I re-heat it, I add a teaspoon of tomato paste and a few drops of water to moisten it. (The pasta seems to suck up the 'mato overnight.) Yum.

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: why_itsme

                                                                    I have never had ACS! I can't wait to try it. Or maybe I just blocked it from my memory....Sounds like a quick fix for the family when I don't have a lot of time or energy to cook. I would be tempted to add cheese though. My mom used to make....oh never mind that belongs on another thread. :) (I like smileys) I just finished reading the other posts and realised that THIS is what my husband has been referring to as goulash! I never knew what the heck he was talking about. He will be in for a treat (I guess??) some night soon.

                                                                  2. I know that this thread is very old, but none of the recipes shown are what we made at Girl Scout Camp:
                                                                    1 pound ground beef - browned. Add
                                                                    2 envelopes Lipton Obnion Soup. Mix well and add
                                                                    2 cans Spaghettios. Mix and cook till bubbly, mixing frequently.
                                                                    That was it - made over a camp fire!

                                                                    1. In PA it was called goulash. Never heard of American Chop Suey until on Chowhound.

                                                                      1. In our family (E. Central Illinois) a skillet dish made with ground beef, onions, tomatoes, kidney beans and macaroni had no name until I was served a version in the school cafeteria. It had grated cheddar stirred in, a serious improvement, and was called Marietta. I told Mom about the cheese and the name and that's what we had after that.

                                                                        Goulash, on the other hand, was diced bacon fried until crisp, excess fat drained off (and saved in a can, of course!), then ground beef and chopped onion added. When this was cooked, kidney beans and a can of tomato soup were stirred in. This was served over noodles.

                                                                        The only Chop Suey I encountered in those years (1940s and '50's) was the kind that came from La Choy in several cans, served over the canned fried noodles and sprinkled with their totally flavorless "soy sauce". How amazed I was when I was introduced to Tamari!

                                                                        8 Replies
                                                                        1. re: Will Owen

                                                                          I never had any Chinese food of any type until I was in college. My friends could not imagine that I had never even had so much as a fortune cookie.

                                                                          My father HATED anything Asian. Really hated. Even rice. I mean Hate with a capital H.

                                                                          1. re: laliz

                                                                            The only thing my dad would not allow in the house was lamb. He'd gotten so much awful canned mutton during the war that the slightest whiff of sheepiness would send him off retching. As soon as I discovered lamb I wondered why we never had it at home; I'm glad it was Mom I asked! I was told never to mention it in front of Dad.

                                                                            1. re: Will Owen

                                                                              I grew up in Boston (Dorchester) and my mother made American Chop Suey with hamburger, stewed tomatoes, chopped onions, pepper and celery. We had a tomato garden so she often used her own tomatoes but the canned are fine too. She never used her tomato sauce for this recipe but when it was served at school for lunch it was with tomato sauce. Mom's was much better! I made it for my own kids and now I make it for my granddaughter.

                                                                              1. re: joan828

                                                                                yep. this is the stuff.

                                                                                boil a half pound of macaroni til just tender.
                                                                                add a 14 oz. can of chopped tomatoes (drained) and 4 oz of grated cheddar to the warm macaroni. toss. let sit while you...
                                                                                cook a diced onion in a couple of tablespoons of oil ( or rendered bacon fat) until soft ( 3 minutes?). add:
                                                                                12 oz of 80/20 or 85/15 ground beef and cook until browned. add:
                                                                                a rib of celery chopped and some soy sauce (1/2 to 1 tsp.?)
                                                                                add meat mixture to macaroni. mix. salt and pepper.

                                                                                serve to rapturous 90 year old new englanders with fish cakes, hot dogs and beans and indian pudding for dessert.

                                                                                1. re: joan828

                                                                                  Yup- that is how my mom made it. Grew up just north of Boston. Never tomato sauce, always stewed tomatoes. My mom still makes it- and still thinks she is feeding 7 kids when she does, as she make TONS of it!

                                                                                  1. re: macca

                                                                                    Yeah I always make too much too! My parents only had 4 kids, but 3 of them were boys so it was like feeding an army. Mom taught me that way and some recipes are hard to change. :)

                                                                                    1. re: joan828

                                                                                      There were 7 of us- with 6 boys! Old habits are hard to break!

                                                                                2. re: Will Owen

                                                                                  Will, it was the same at our house regarding all things sheepish, for the exact same reason.

                                                                            2. First time I came across ACS was in 1969 when I started teaching in a Cambridge, MA bedroom suburb. It was the Wed. lunch in the school caf. I loved it and always pleaded with the lunch ladies for a bit extra, back when my metabolism still was in high gear. Later, it became my go-to lunch whenever I was up north skiing off the calories.