Chop-Suey

..and you thought this was going to be a recipe post. Sorry, it’s not.

Have you ever noticed how certain smells or tastes take you back in time? Could be anything. The smell of a candle, a certain perfume, an Easter ham….so many things can trigger memories from childhood.

For me? It’s Chop-Suey.

My Mom used to make Chop-Suey for all important family events. It is important to note here that we are not even a little bit Asian, I am only a only a third generation American on my Mother’s side…and very, very Irish. But my Mom? She loved her some Chop-Suey and so she found a way to make a slightly Irish version of it. Beef and Pork combined, it was the stuff of the Gods when I grew up. She made it in an electric skillet (remember those?) and I swear it melted in my mouth.

In the 17 years since she died, I have missed this dish more than I can say. To me, it symbolized family gatherings and jokes about how innapropriate it was for some holidays. (July 4th? Maybe not the most representative dinner choice.)

The thing was, it was always there. And when she was no longer among us…it vanished and I missed it so much. To me, it represented comfort…being with her and my Dad, family surrounding us. The fact that she was no longer cooking that dish was a small death in and of itself. Because to me, it was like a hug from her.

After she died, I waited a very long time before I opened the avacado green tin that held her recipes, most of which were written by hand lovingly from her family and friends. Not categorized like us mommies do now, just stuffed in a little box. When I finally did open it, the flood of emotions that came from it almost flattened me. You see, they smelled like the house I grew up in. All captured in a tiny tin, just waiting for me to open it like Pandora’s Box and let loose a flood of painful tears.

I dug for that recipe for hours while still leaving everything in tact. Look at the note card pulled out with the words “Spinich Balls” from a friend of hers. That stuff? Plus the smell? Is PRICELESS.

But the one recipe I wanted was not there. Because that was the one dish she made from her heart. For me. Because I was the one who demanded it at every possible turn.

So for some reason the other night, after not having thought about it for a few years, I dreamed about it. And I dreamed I was cooking it for a bloggy friend of mine that has gone missing for a while. For the first time ever, I remembered the ingredients which I could not before. I remembered that she sauteed the meat, and the ingredients she added. All of this before has been a loss to me…I’ve struggled for years to remember it.

After the kids got on the bus to go to school, The Man asked me what might be a great rainy day dinner for us to which I answered, “Chop-Suey…I really, really want Chop-Suey today.”

I have to say, I may have married the most amazing man on the planet because after I told him what I remembered he researched the recipe on the internet and he found almost an exact duplicate and cooked it for me last night. I smiled through the entire meal as memories of happy gatherings with friends and family rushed back to me, all the while feeling like somehow my Mother was sitting there with us, creating laughter with her jokes and making guests feel like they were at home. My Mother was amazing, and last night, for just a moment, my husband brought her back to me.

So tell me…what’s your memory trigger and when is the last time you experienced it?


41 Comments


  1. Amo said:

    Okay, I soooo did not need to tear up right now. The boys are awake and you know they can smell weakness.

    My mom passed away in October. She had not cooked for the last 5 years, but prior to she was the absolute BEST COOK in the world. No matter what she made from a simple breakfast casserole to spaghetti, it was always incredible…and the kitchen was always a wreck. That woman would be covered in flour whether the recipe called for it or not! (And I am sooo much like her in that way.)

    I loved her fried chicken and her apple pie. I tried to make her friend chicken once. I never was able to get the grease stains off the kitchen ceiling. We just moved instead.

    After she died, I had Thanksgiving dinner at my house. It was bittersweet in that she was gone and we were moving in less than two weeks. I hunted through all her recipes until I found it…her apple pie. I didn’t make the dough from scratch like she did. (I’m not that good.) But it was truly the best dessert I’ve had since she stopped cooking.

    I may go buy some apples today.

    Thank you for sharing your memories and a glimpse into your wonderful husband. What a treasure.

  2. Michele said:

    The smell of fresh cut wood brings back my dad to me every time. I remember sitting in his workshop watching him cut and hammer wood into the most amazing things. 13 years later I still miss him.

  3. Dorsey said:

    For me it’s old fashioned oatmeal, my grandmother would make it every time I stayed with her and have it waiting on a fold down table in the kitchen opening when I woke up…paired with skillet toast it was simply heavenly! I would sit there, eat, and watch cartoons and just soak in all that Memaw goodness!

  4. Dana's Brain said:

    My Mom wore Chanel No 5. Not all the time, but when she and my Dad went out or if there was some special occasion. It’s not a fragrance that I come across often. If I am in a department store or something though, I always go get a spritz. It makes me feel closer to her.

  5. NGS said:

    Oh, French toast. My parents didn’t (and still don’t) really cook much. My food-related sense memories are mostly of the fried foods from fast food restaurant types. But recently I woke up with a craving for French toast so strong I made my husband go to the store to buy special gluten-free bread so that we could both have it. It just made me remember those times when dad would be flipping the bread and we’d be drowning them in maple syrup. Ah…good times. Thanks for this post!

  6. Kat said:

    The smell of a chicken boiling in a pot. It takes me back to my great grandmother’s house every single time. She used to make some kick ass chicken and dumplings. I miss her so much.

  7. Sprite's Keeper said:

    My mom made matzo brie and kugle which I loved. We used to have both weekly. These days, she doesn’t make either much at all, but I’ve recreated them a couple of times for John and even once for a potluck at my office. Every time I take a bite, I’m eight years old again, pestering my sister and having no qualm in the world other than whether or not I’ll be allowed to stay up past bedtime to watch the Cosby Show.

  8. Kate Coveny Hood said:

    I feel like I’m bombarded with childhood memories on a daily basis - and they’re so often sense memories. The way a warm breeze picks up my hair exposing my neck to the hint of coming rain (childhood beach vacations). The sound of a high pitched tone coming from a powerline overhead (the TV test pattern that doesn’t exist anymore). The musty smell of boxes in the basement (the “dress up box” holding all of my mother’s old dance recital costumes).

    And then I wonder if anyone else has this continuous feed of sense memory. Or if they have it but just don’t notice it.

    Funny story about Chop Suey. It’s one of those things that I’ve heard of but never had. Recently - I learned that it’s an American dish created back when Chinese food was considered very exotic. Chinese restaurants offered it on their menus to accommodate the less adventurous American patrons. And it apparently faded away from mainstream restaurants over 30 years ago. BUT my husbands’s grandma must have fond memories of it since she asks for it when she’s out at a Chinese restaurant. Luckily - she’s also a little senile and forgets about her order as soon as other dishes arrive at the table.

  9. Gotchy said:

    You made me cry.

  10. foradifferentkindofgirl (fakdog) said:

    I’m so, so glad you had that moment! I bet your husband will make it for you a lot now.

    This post is lovely. I love that you could have so many wonderful things rush back to you as you went through the recipe box. I was just talking to a friend the other day about something along the lines of this subject. She’s been trying to recreate recipes her husband grew up on because her MIL became, essentially, her mom, having lost her mother while young. I encouraged her to take a videocamera to her MIL’s house and ask her to cook the favorite recipes and talk about family memories so that would be something she always had.

    I remember things in very, very brief flashes, and it bothers me sometimes that I don’t have more extensive memories. I mean, I can remember the bright pink shag carpet of the first house I remember living in with my family, but there’s huge gaps of life that I think can’t possibly be my memories.

  11. The Dental Maven said:

    Awesome how are brains are wired to have such deep associations with smell and taste. I couldn’t imagine life without that ability.

  12. Cameron said:

    Great post, and that hubby of yours deserves high praise.

    When I was a kid, we were poor, so we ate a lot of cheap, ‘fuel in your stomach’ type foods. To this day I still love and cook a lot of those.

  13. steenky bee said:

    HELLO! I wish I would have read this, and your email before I sent you that long, blathering email moments ago. This was such a lovely post! I hearted it.

    My very first memory is of being in trouble and in my crib. I remember crying. I know a football game was on in the other room. I’m pretty sure I said a bad word to my parents that I picked up from the sitter. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    For me, smells brings floods of memories to me. Smells and music. The 1990’s were a difficult time for me. I can’t bear to hear music from 1992-1998 without freaking out. Sorry, Nirvana. I’m sure you were wonderful and all, but painful memories lurk during those days.

  14. Sarah said:

    That was such a lovely story. I know just what you mean about smells and tastes taking you back to your childhood! Glad you found the recipe and maybe it can be a memory now for your kids!!! : )

  15. Mama Dawg said:

    I have entirely too many to count.

    I loved your story, though. So sweet.

  16. The Lawyer Mom said:

    For me it’s a certain scent in the air in mid-October, signaling Halloween and holidays are just around the corner. I feel like a kid again when that nip comes.

    Glad you got your chop-suey. Nicely told.

  17. April said:

    For Christmas I got my daughter her first Cabage Patch. I got one when I was her age and LOVED it. I remember when my mom told me about Santa 2 years later, I ran to my dad, crawled in his lap and thanked him for my doll (I still have her). Anyway, when Toot opened hers the smell hit me and I started crying. Kinda freaked her out but I couldn’t help it. It brought back exactly how I felt that day I learned about Santa. I wasn’t upset, I just wanted to thank the right person and let my dad know how much he meant to me. Thankfully, my dad is still around. I made Toot take her new doll to his house on Christmas so he could smell it. Brought tears to his eyes and even more to mine. Now, when I’m feeling down, I go searching for Toots doll and just smell it. She really thinks I’m crazy now.

  18. a H.I.T. said:

    What a fabulous Man and post. The smell of the perfume Sign always makes me think of my Grandma. When I was little and she would visit, I used to make her sleep on my pillow at night. That way, it would still smell like her when she left. I love that smell. Just thinking about it can bring it back and all the memories I have with my Grandma. I think it’s time for a visit.

  19. shonda said:

    Wow, tear. There is a company that you can use to publish your own cookbooks for a small amount of money. You can sell them in stores or online and write how it was significant or the good stories behind them. Hell, I will say in advance that I will buy one. My friends’ grandma had one made to raise money for her granddaughter’s medical bills and I was really impressed with the family stories she put into it.

  20. The Mother said:

    Pine needles and roasting ham. No adult associations can even come close.

  21. Cyndi said:

    If there’s a happy sound for crying, you brought it on - thank you! I’ve written about opening my beloved Gramma’s manger set box and getting the last real whiffs of all those smells that represented her loving ways to me. I’m also all about the smells and the music, thanx for the stroll down memory lane from you and all your awesome commenters :-) The Man is awesomesauce, for sure!

  22. Captain Dumbass said:

    Dammit, Stiletto, you’re making me all misty here! I don’t have food memories of my mom because she is a god-awful cook. Don’t worry, she’d tell you the same thing. For me, it’s the smell of nail polish or nail polish remover.

  23. bex said:

    that dream you had is amazing! write that one down! (oh wait, you did).

    the smell of old houses is it for me. i grew up in houses built between 1890-1910 - they all share the same smell. maybe its asbestos, maybe its the nails they used or the wood they used but anytime i set foot in one, random memories i haven’t thought of in years come back. i slept in an old house from that era last weekend when i went out of town. of course it haunted my dreams. but i kind of expected it.

  24. ShoozieShoes said:

    Cinnamon for rainy days like today, the sound of pigeons for camping holidays, almond flavor for my grandmother’s cakes.

    Loved your post; almost made me cry - and I don’t even cry in movies.

  25. Michele said:

    That is wonderful that your husband researched the recipe and cooked it for you. Your post made me teary. Even more than pre-menstrually normal.

  26. Beth said:

    Each time I wave and my arm giggles, I first get upset but then I smile and think about my Mommom. She was a lovely person.

  27. pamela said:

    This was a truly lovely post.

  28. CK Lunchbox said:

    First it was Petra last week and now you. Why do you insists on making us all cry (which is easy to do with such a wonderfully written and honest post like this)?

    And kuddos to your Mr Stiletto.

  29. Meli said:

    Wow, that was an amazing post. You basically had me blubbering away at my desk.

    You have an awesome husband.

  30. Jenni Jiggety said:

    What a great story! I am so glad that you were able to get that recipe recreated. I have a lot of memory triggers with smells…it happens to me all the time.

  31. Casey said:

    I have to admit that I’ve never had chop-suey but it sounds great. When you talked about opening your mom’s recipe boxes, I knew exactly what you meant. I snagged my Gram’s recipes after she passed away (before anybody else could take them first!) and every time I see her hand written recipes, it brings me back to when she and I used to bake together. I’m so glad you were able to get a little reminder of your mom…

  32. Keely said:

    The Man is awesome.

    I have a buttload of food-related memories. One of my faves is the way my Grandma, who was a fabulous cook, used to totally phone it in once in a while and serve canned peaches and ice cream for dinner.

    Sometimes with toast.

  33. Lisa said:

    I strongly disliked collard greens for years and never ate them, but when I would smell them cooking at my grandmother’s in North Carolina I would think of Christmas because that is when we had them. Living up north, no one cooks collard greens, but on the off chance someone does, or even other vegetables that smell like it, I’ll think of Grandma and her kitchen and … I have to go cry now. Please excuse me.

  34. MommyNamedApril said:

    This was a really lovely story. For me it’s the Beach Boys. My dad used to play his BB record for me every evening before bed when I was a baby. When I hear Good Vibrations I can picture my nursery, right down to the window shades and hideous brown plastic kid’s record player. Love it.

  35. weezy said:

    I loved your mom. Loved her chop suey. Love you.

  36. Connie @ Young and Relentless said:

    Great story! I love that you finally got to eat it again and that your hubby made it!

    Smells. The smell of Polo cologne reminds me of the summer that I was 15 years old and I briefly dated an older boy.

  37. HeatherPride said:

    What a great post, Mary Anne. A hug from heaven.

  38. New Diva on the Blog said:

    What a lovely post and lucky you that your husband make it for you!

    The first thing that came to my mind, is the automatic air freshner in the bathroom at our old office. When I was pregnant with my son, that smell brought on morning sickness like nobody’s business. To this day, whenever I smell it, I get that morning sick feeling again (my son is now almost 11). Not the best feeling in the world, but it always makes me smile, because my son is the best son in the world and I wouldn’t trade having been pregnant with him for anything!

  39. domestically challenged said:

    what a sweet memory, and even sweeter husband! It is funny how a food can take you back. Me? Don’t show me a reese’s.

  40. Jessica said:

    OMG, you just made me cry. I miss my mom often, it’s usually smells or tastes that really bring it on. Oh heck, or blog posts! ;) I’m still trying to recreate some of her cream sauces that she made from scratch with whatever was on hand. Never quite gotten it right. I finally perfected her spaghetti and eggs though. *grin*

    Thank you for this post. It home I guess you could say.

  41. Sherendipity said:

    This post was wonderful. Almost as wonderful as your man for putting that beautiful smile on your face.


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