How A Lawsuit Made People Believe Chop Suey Was American

A beloved dish from Beijing to Burbank, chop suey is a Chinese chicken and vegetable dish even American presidents have grown to love. Despite its irresistible flavor profile, the hearty meal's origins are shrouded in mystery, political scandal, and racial injustice. Some tall tales tell the story of a Chinese diplomat in 1896 New York City who aimed to make authentic Chinese food more accessible to his American guests—chicken and vegetables it was! Another version of history sees drunk miners stumble into a Chinese-American restaurant at closing time where a scrappy, albeit annoyed, chef whipped up what little was left of the dinner rush – chicken and vegetables. Among the many fables that make up its origins, history notes in 1904, an American man from San Francisco named Lem Sen asserted he invented chop suey while working in a bohemian restaurant. A bold claim indeed, Sen took it one step further to say the resourceful dish was wholly American – as American as pork and beans. Sen wouldn't settle for word-of-mouth. He needed his claim legitimized, so he opened a lawsuit demanding every Chinese eatery serving chop suey remove the item from its menu and pay him for his intellectual property.

Lem Sen's lawsuit

Although he was dedicated to the dangerous act of rewriting history, Lem Sen didn't make it far in his lawsuit. According to the New York Times, even his lawyer Rufus P Livermore was under the impression chop suey was a Chinese dish. But Sen was persistent. He alleged that the American people weren't even interested in Chinese cuisine until Li Hongzhang, a Chinese politician, arranged a visit to the United States. The American people were in a culture shock frenzy—eager to see what Li Hongzhang's visit implied for their own culture. Sen, a man with an entrepreneurial spirit, sought to match the public's enthusiastic interest with a themed dish that could pass as but wasn't authentically Chinese. And just like that, Lem Sen's chop suey was born. According to his testimony, another man stole his recipe and sold it off as Chinese. Despite his relentlessness, Lem Sen didn't make any headway in his lawsuit and ultimately dropped the case.

The lingering impact of Lem Sen's chop suey lawsuit

Although Sen dropped his lawsuit and failed to receive the honor of inventing the controversial dish, the legend remained. The lawsuit came at the heels of The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which, according to The History Channel, was "the first significant law restricting immigration into The United States." Despite making up only .002% of the population, the grossly restrictive, ten-year immigration law went into effect on the basis that Chinese workers were to blame for the economic downturn plaguing American businesses at the time. While Sen's efforts may have been rooted in self-righteousness, his lawsuit effectively armed racist Americans with ammunition against Chinese and Chinese-American citizens, all while they enjoyed the comforts of the "American-made" chop suey. To this day, folks across America use the otherwise ignorant adage "As American as chop suey" to measure just how American-made something is. Despite the pervasive misconception that Lem Sen invented chop suey on American soil, the historically problematic and downright delicious dish is worth honoring from a multicultural, Chinese-American perspective.