On the “soft and gentle flavors of the past”
I don’t eat Chinese food all that much anymore. There are times I think the observation a family member made — Thai is the new Chinese — is right on.
But my affection for Chinese food has not waned – and this Christmas Day, this American, NY-raised Jew will be headed off for Chinese food (in Bangor, Maine yet).
Ok, it’s true that, as one who doesn’t celebrate the Christian holiday that I have to find something else to do.
And something else to eat.
But eating Chinese food is a Jewish American tradition.
Thinking about it this year brings back memories. In that, I am not alone. In the classic piece, Safe Treyf, Gaye Tuchman and Harry Levine write:
For immigrants and most first-generation Jews, Chinese restaurants were new experiences. However, our middle-aged and third-generation informants viewed them differently. When these Jews talked about Chinese restaurants they usually told us about their parents and family outings. They added that as adults eating Chinese food, they found that their present experiences resonated with a fondly remembered past. For them, Chinese food had become fused with their family experiences and their own social life — part of what it meant to be a New York Jew. As Mimi Sheraton put it, describing Cantonese cooking, “These dishes, with their meltingly tender vegetables and soothing garlic overtones, are for me what Federico Fellini once described as ‘the soft and gentle flavors of the past'”.
Some of my memories of Chinese food are tied to my bubbe Sadie, a warm and wonderful woman who was born in Minsk in 1900. She and Aunt Thelma and Uncle Max (the latter a refugee from Hitler’s Germany) would meet my parents and sisters some Sundays to partake.
And then there’s my dad, who, amazingly and joyously could locate a parking spot in NY’s Chinatown — that was a miracle! — where sometimes we could stop at the arcade that had the tic-tac-toe playing chicken.
For my children, maybe it will that same, silly joke from who-knows-where I make when I read the fortune in my fortune cookie and report it says, “Help, I’m being held hostage in a Chinese fortune cookie factory.”
Do you have Chinese food memories?
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