St. Louie Chop Suey

You are what you eat: The story of a culture, told through its cuisine.

In a life beset by uncertainty, we can be sure of this: Socrates never ate a St. Paul Sandwich.

How do we know? Why, simple logic:

Jennifer Silverberg
A St. Louis original: The St. Paul Sandwich.
Jennifer Silverberg
A St. Louis original: The St. Paul Sandwich.

Premise A): Socrates, the Greek philosopher who died in 399 B.C., never visited St. Louis, Missouri.

Premise B): The St. Paul Sandwich — comprising an egg foo young patty, slice of tomato, pickle and iceberg lettuce sandwiched between two slices of mayonnaise-laden white bread — is cultivated exclusively in the culinary soil of the city's chop suey houses.

Ergo, Conclusion C): Socrates never ate a St. Paul Sandwich.

This is no mere conjecture. This is deductive reasoning — logic.

OK, so knowledge of a long-dead philosopher's dietary habits may provide only modest consolation for a species clinging to Earth's surface while hurtling through infinity at 185 miles per second — but I say take heart. Wasn't it Socrates, after all, who first taught us to revel not in what little we know, but rather in the knowledge that we know nothing?

Bald and pug-nosed, with fleshy lips, a mule-like neck, a full beard and an acerbic disposition, Socrates may have authored a sweet and self-effacing philosophy, but he was no great inspirer of Athenian sympathies. The thinker had a libertine's taste for the young sons of Greek nobility, and it wasn't long before city elders charged him on two counts: denying the city's gods and corrupting its youth. But before Socrates was found guilty (and ultimately committed suicide by drinking hemlock from a silver goblet), he managed to articulate one of Western thought's most enduring concepts: the platonic ideal.

Be it a meal, a man or a concept, Socrates believed all earthly things were but imperfect replicas of their idealized forms. His was a profoundly sanguine vision of the universe: Yes, our lives may be inundated by failed relationships, declining health and subpar meals, but by ignoring these imperfections and concentrating on the ideal forms, we might ourselves approach a perfection uncorrupted by earthly desire.

After all, who needs desire in the unblemished face of perfection? Served, say, an ideal porterhouse steak, are you really going to want to douse it with A1? Of course not. This is a Platonist's porterhouse. Who are we — covetous and imperfect creatures that we are — to send it back?

Which brings us to a gnarly Socratic crossroads: Perfection robs us of personal choice. Sure, we may admire perfection, but who doesn't? Confronted with perfection, we have no choice but to dote, and just as it's impossible to find flaws in the object of our ardor, it is equally impossible to divine anything unique, anything that is our own, in our ardor.

It is this tension — between an icy perfection and our overheated desire to exercise our flawed will — that has occupied some of the West's biggest minds for more than two millennia of philosophical inquiry.

Does anyone really think, then, that the fare served in the unassuming chop suey houses of St. Louis would be immune from this all-too-human dilemma? Can there be any doubt but that egg foo young, chop suey, crab Rangoon and, of course, the St. Paul Sandwich are but imperfect descendants of their unimpeachable Chinese archetypes?

These humble Cold War dishes seem all the more fraudulent amid today's national infatuation with micro-regional cuisines. But it was not always so. From its obscure origins in the Cantonese diaspora, chop suey became the cuisine de siècle during much of the past century, when Americans embraced its ersatz exoticism and perceived cosmopolitanism as a cuisine all their own.

But like any good -ism, chop suey's reign eventually faltered, unseated by the postmodern age of disparately blended cuisines, farm-specific meats and organic veggies. Vanquished and subject to highfalutin ridicule, chop suey has retreated to America's culinary (and urban) ghettos.

Forgotten, but not gone.

And while the history of chop suey may be read as a thumbnail allegory of Western philosophy, there's one distinction:

Chop suey is easier to digest.


Walking into Park Chop Suey at the edge of the gentrified Lafayette Square district is an experience somewhat shy of philosophical. A bright little shop that does a brisk lunch takeout business with area workers, Park Chop Suey is one of the last chop suey joints south of Delmar Boulevard, St. Louis' de facto color line.

Park Chop Suey does not possess a formal dining room. There are no chairs. In fact, aside from a few stacks of free papers and a row of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, the room's only adornment is the yellowed front page from the July 4, 1984, edition of this newspaper tacked to the wall. The cover story that week, an ode to the up-by-the-bootstraps immigrant experience entitled "Dreams Come True," featured Park Chop Suey founder Steven Yuen.

Behind a Plexiglas screen on the opposite wall hangs Park Chop Suey's menu. Here you can purchase a full order of pork chop suey for $6.25. An order of crab Rangoon costs $1.70, and fried crab sticks will set you back $2.50. The menu's crown prince, the St. Paul Sandwich, costs anywhere from $1.80 to $2.50, depending on how you want it dressed up.

After beating an egg into diced onion, bean sprouts and, if the customer wishes, chicken, pork, beef, duck or shrimp, Le Dung, one of Park Chop Suey's three cooks, prepares the St. Paul's central ingredient by scooping up the mixture in a ladle and gently dropping it into an oil-brimming wok.

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