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No matter your opinion of Chinese global politics or who created the pandemic, I’ll wager you won’t be giving up Chinese food anytime soon.
As we all know, the fare originated in one of the world’s oldest civilizations, which means Chinese cuisine has been around for 4,000 years, give or take a millennium.
Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant is a time-tested ritual for us folks of the Jewish persuasion. Besides the bliss of celebrating our holiday uniqueness — no tree, no caroling — there’s the sight of mothers set free from the kitchen, away from vats of chicken soup with floating matzoh balls, not to mention the mountains of dirty dishes.
No one looked happier than my mother on December 25, reveling in what the gentiles couldn’t imagine — a restaurant meal on Christmas. She loved the idea the rest of the country’s mothers were slaving away at their hams, roasts, and fresh cranberry sauce from the freezer from Thanksgiving. “Today, I am a free woman,” she would say.
Surprisingly, my mother wasn’t a fan of Chinese food per se. I never saw her eat chop suey any other time of the year. She strongly disapproved of their shrimp with lobster sauce, a double dose of shellfish. “They couldn’t find another sauce?”
I am less discriminating and hoover in anything set in front of me. I pay no attention to kosher dictates and devour pork and bacon, especially if it’s undercooked, a delicacy Jews forbid. “Pork must be overcooked. I’m not letting you get sick on forbidden food. Why do you think it’s forbidden?” she declared.
When I was four or five years old, before I had the good fortune of my first Chinese meal, two reproductions of Chinese women magically appeared, and the framed prints became the centerpiece of our living room. Each large portrait was a likeness of a Chinese female from the waist up dressed in traditional attire. Both oil paintings were by the same artist, Tretchikoff.
Sixty years later, with the two women perched on my living room wall, I google the painter’s name and discover these two prints are the most reproduced works in art history. I’m not sure how the numbers are calculated, but I can see my practical parents going to a shop for their first purchase of art and asking for a popular item. Why risk upsetting neighbors with abstract expressionism nobody understands anyway?
I harbor a recovered memory of my mother spicing up our blank living room wall with exotic faces. What enticed my father to invite two beautiful women into his home I can’t say. Was he a Jewish husband surrounded by strong women and seduced by the stereotype of docile Asian women?
Tretchikoff was Russian but apparently spent a lot of time in China. One painting is entitled the Chinese Girl. Today the over-popular painting is cynically referred to as the Green Lady, and the artist is called the king of kitsch. When my parents retired and sold my childhood home and all the furnishings, I made off with the two ladies.
After college, I dated a lovely Chinese woman. She brought me to Chinatown to order from menus that lacked English. I craved it all – dim sum, Peking duck, cold noodles with peanut sauce, chow fun, and dishes I was afraid to name.
Chinese restaurants are the hardest working people I’d ever seen, producing their delicacies for Americans seven days a week while simultaneously inventing food delivery before the CEO of Uber Eats was born. Living on my own, not a week went by when I didn’t order Chinese take-out. My friends were no different. We would quiz each other, “What number on your speed dial is Chinese?” If it was number one, you were knighted the connoisseur of egg rolls, in the days before they were called spring rolls.
Chinese restaurants in Brooklyn had their delivery system so well-oiled it was smoother than a wok. After speed dialing an order, I would take cash from my wallet, walk down the long hallway, and by the time I reached my front door, the delivery guy would be parking his bicycle in front of my porch. One friend claimed he’d received a delivery at the same time he’d hung up the phone.
How could every dish on their 20-page menu be ready instantly, allowing for the three-minute delivery time? I haven’t eaten Brooklyn spare ribs in a decade, but I can still recall their spices and picture the red delivery bag with the aluminum foil interior that kept the sizzling ribs warm. I don’t know what made the pork look so red or smell so good, but on my salary it was a poor man’s feast.
Despite her disinterest in Chinese food, my mother had one delight on the menu — the lack of desserts. For Jews, at least my family, dessert is the highlight of the meal. When I open a restaurant menu, any menu, I turn to the dessert page first for a preview of what’s ahead. I calculate how much belt-room I’ll need for the coming delights.
Although Chinese menus are the size of phonebooks when phonebooks still existed, they have little more than lychee nuts for dessert, which I don’t order because I don’t know what they are. They don’t look like nuts, and nuts aren’t supposed to be sweet. When I sat down with my family and first cousins for our Christmas dinner in the late afternoon, I packed in the egg foo young, house special fried rice, and moo shu pork because dessert wasn’t happening. One of my cousins carried Bazooka bubble gum in his pocket for dessert.
My mother, who was on a diet every day of her life, appreciated that she couldn’t be tempted by tiramisu or peach cobbler, that everyone was forced to be satisfied with one fortune cookie as dessert. A family we knew exchanged fortunes if they thought the wisdom was more appropriate for someone else. We were only permitted to choose our cookie before they were opened, but that choice sealed our fate; the fortune was meant for you and established your destiny incontrovertibly. As the cookies were being opened, one of my cousins would inevitably ask, “Who comes up with these sayings?” When we got older and he was studying Marxism in college, the question became, “Who stuffs these inside the cookies?”
I have a box of hundreds of fortunes that I’ve saved over the years, a collection of favorites accumulated over a lifetime of roast pork chow mein and crispy noodles dipped in sweet & sour sauce, a pre-appetizer that puts breadsticks to shame. I believe the Chinese invented finger-food and rectangular take-out boxes, not to mention the 20-page menu, chopsticks, and the 7-day workweek. Even the Puritans took a day off for church, but the Chinese prefer to worship saving money, along with the sighs of satisfied customers who loosen their pants and waddle to their cars.
I was often so full after Christmas dinner I couldn’t squeeze out a smile for our hosts as I hugged the white container boxes with red Chinese lettering that wouldn’t survive to the next day. I would sneak in a dip three hours after I arrived home, wondering how I was hungry. I settled into the evening’s slumber knowing Christmas had been a success, satiated with tiny chopstick bites that made no sense to a child but fill a wondrous space in my memories.
I recall waking up one December 26, and I could smell my mother preparing breakfast. My father was having his usual black coffee with two poached eggs on unbuttered, whole wheat toast. He insisted poached eggs were the healthiest way to eat eggs, and my mother let him forget the cholesterol contained in 14 eggs a week.
After breakfast, my mother demanded I take out the garbage. Tying up the plastic bag, I spied half a dozen empty Chinese containers with their thin metal handles, which transported the precious cargo like food luggage. I asked if there were any leftovers from yesterday, to which my mother scoffed, “Can you imagine they eat that stuff for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?”
The week I received my first Social Security check, my fortune cookie read: “You will never need to worry about a steady income.” I taped the fortune to my desk where it resides now in nostalgic prescience below Tretchikoff’s Chinese women.