Lost In History, Vol. 12

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12/06/2006 12:00 AM |

There’s a certain online joke making the inboxes, and the recipients are obvious. It helps if you belong to a certain subset of people who think they’re the chosen ones, and particularly if you live in a certain metropolis (they don’t call it “Jew York” for nothing), and it goes like this: According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5766. According to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4703. This means that for 1,063 years, the Jews went without Chinese food. It’s not a funny joke, but it perpetuates a truism, one that gets celebrated about this time every year by the roughly 1.4 million Jews who live in the greater NYC region. But why? Why do Jewish families plunk their collective tuchases down at the Chinese restaurant every Christmas and eat with religious fervor, regardless of the traif (non-kosher) factor? Do Chinese food and Jews go hand in hand like duck sauce with fried wontons, or borscht with sour cream? It all comes down to the melting pot that is New York City, and the confluence of lives within.

Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, most restaurants would be closed Christmas Day. Italian, German, French, Irish, you name it, the owners and staff took the day off to celebrate with families and loved ones; it was the single most shuttered holiday of the year. All the other major holidays — New Year’s, July Fourth, Memorial Day — were huge money-makers. For Christmas Day? Who doesn’t celebrate Christmas? The Jews and the Chinese. So with so many shuttered kitchens, the Jews of New York flooded into Chinatown and the restaurants scattered throughout the five boroughs. And fortuitously, Chinese food doesn’t mix milk with meat, one of the principle tenets of kosher cookery. Regarding the vast amounts of culinary no-nos inherent in Chinese food — pork and assorted shellfish such as shrimp, lobster, clams and squid — most modern-day edible theorists use the chop suey theory. Chop suey, literally translated into ‘mixed pieces,’ was the prominent style of American Chinese food until the second half of the 20th century, with the arrival of immigrant from the Szechuan region. Long a staple of the farming communities in China, the American version consists of finely chopped vegetables, chicken, shrimp and pork, stir fried and served over rice. With such tiny ingredients hidden amongst the safe foodstuffs, it made it easier for any and all Jews enjoying dinner to overlook an “accidental” swallowing of a taboo food. For astounding material furthering this subject, check out the article “Safe Traif” by Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine, from 1992.

Another few ideas, suggested by the exhibits and documents at the Museum of Chinese in America, include the not-insignificant fact that as Eastern European Jews traded  pogroms and hostility for the political, economic and religious freedom of the New World, they also wanted to shed from themselves any associations with their ancestors. What could be more exotic and cosmopolitan than the strange-yet-tasty, cheap-but-abundant cuisines of China? Yet another theory is that the Chinese people and the Jewish people each have had their fare share of racism, class prejudice, a particularly shared low opinion in the eyes of other Americans, as well as various exterminations throughout their respective tumultuous histories. Finally, as the first begat the second developed into the third generation of immigrants, the collective eating out became ingrained in the society — it became what American Jews did. Of course, NY writers (especially Jewish ones) have their own opinions and are hardly shy of sharing. In a New York Times article dated 3/26/06, Patricia Volk opined: “New York Jews love Chinese food because you don’t need a tie and jacket to eat it. We love it because the portions are big enough to share and Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Day. We love it because Chinese waiters, like Jewish families, are kid-centric.” Pass the sweet and sour chicken.