Why Jews eat Chinese on December 25, and how a hip Brooklyn deli is modernizing that tradition
Mile End opened in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, at the beginning of 2008, a deli specializing in Montreal Jewish cuisine: smoked meat instead of pastrami; poutine instead of cheese fries; those flat, sweet things they serve up there instead of what New Yorkers call bagels. Foodies loved the sandwiches. Hipsters loved the Brownstone Brooklyn setting, the Stumptown coffee, and the brunch, which is just exotic enough to be adventurous and just familiar enough to be, well, brunch.
Then, Mile End began to offer an ambitious dinner menu that took your Eastern European Jewish grandmother’s evergreens and ran them through up-to-the-minute, fat-happy trends: shmaltzed radishes, veal cholent, kasha varnishkes with confit gizzards. What was this cool Canadian place doing serving traditional food? “To me, this is what deli is,” Montreal-born Noah Bermanoff, the place’s founder and co-owner, said earlier this week. “I’m not trying super-hard to be Montreal. I’m trying super-hard to serve food as I know it.”
So take a guess what Mile End is serving on Christmas Day. That’s right: Chinese food.
Titled a “traditional Jewish Christmas,” the prix fixe—served to two seatings on Christmas Eve and four on Christmas Day and made right in the kitchen—will start with wonton eggdrop soup, continue to roast duck with smoked-meat fried rice and Chinese broccoli, and end with fortune cookies and orange wedges. (Mile End’s printed menu is here.) It’s your traditional Chinese meal, made hip, and—with that crucial addition of smoked meat—brushed gently with Mile End’s idiosyncrasy.
But it’s not a twee hipster affect or a one-chuckle joke; it’s a stark claim—almost a polemic. You will not go to Mile End on Christmas because you happened to feel like fried rice. You will go to proudly proclaim your Jewish-American identity. And yet even as the meal is mining this phenomenon, it also recognizes that, more than ever before, Jews are just another brand of white person, and so, especially, for young Jews, simply going to the local lo mein joint may not be enough.
The Hebrew year is 5773 and the Chinese year is 4709. That must mean, the joke goes, that against all odds the Jews went without Chinese food for 1,064 years. In fact, Jewish love for Chinese food is neither hallucinated nor arbitrary. It is very real and very determined, and it originates roughly a century ago, in a place about four miles away from Mile End: the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The predominant groups in the area were Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Chinese. According to Matthew Goodman, author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, Italian cuisine and especially Italian restaurants, with their Christian iconography, held little appeal for Jews. But the Chinese restaurants had no Virgin Marys. And they prepared their food in the Cantonese culinary style, which utilized a sweet-and-sour flavor profile, overcooked vegetables, and heaps of garlic and onions. Sound familiar?
Additionally, argued Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine in a 1992 academic paper titled “Safe Treyf,” Chinese food featured the sort of unkosher dishes you could take home to your mother, or at least eat in front of her. For one thing, there is no mixing of dairy and meat, for the simple reason that there is no dairy. (Think about it!) Of course, there is trayf aplenty, chiefly pork and shellfish. But it is always either chopped and minced and served in the middle of innocuous vegetables all covered in a common sauce, or it is wrapped up in wontons and egg rolls—where you can’t see it. Goodman notes that the purveyors of Chinese restaurants eventually picked up on this: “They would advertise wonton soup as chicken soup with kreplach,” he told me.
Beyond the trappings and the cuisine, Chinese restaurants offered poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants the opportunity to feel cosmopolitan and sophisticated (food of the Orient!). It also let them feel superior, a truism that has achieved the most definitive canonization available: its own Philip Roth quotation. “Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese,” Alexander Portnoy tells us. “Because one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are just so much fried rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white and maybe even Anglo Saxon. No wonder they can’t intimidate us. To them we’re just some big-nosed variety of WASP.”
The final part of this story is the one you already know: Most Chinese people are not Christian. Therefore, on Christmas, Chinese restaurants are open.
OK, you say, but since the Lower East Side’s glory years, and even since the Baby Boomers’ halcyon suburbia, many more options have cropped up—Indian, Korean, Thai. But, still, as Rabbi Joshua Plaut, who is putting the finishing touches on a book about Jews and Christmas (it has a chapter on Chinese food), says: “For Jews, the decision to go to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas is conscious and intended.”
“It’s a love affair and a sacred tradition to partake of Peking duck,” Plaut quips. He argues that to eat Chinese on Christmas is a ritual, not unlike the rituals that traditional Judaism—which has always valued observance where Christianity has valued faith—requires. For some, the Chinese-on-Christmas experience is a replacement for traditional rituals: A prayer you can eat.
But more than standing in for religion, going to Chinese restaurants on Christmas as a Jewish person is an elective assertion of your culture. “As ridiculous as it is, there’s something kind of wonderful about it, that you’re paying homage to what has come before you,” said Goodman, the Jewish Food author. Bermanoff, of Mile End, has a nearly identical take: “If there is a culture that revolves around eating pork wontons on Sunday evenings,” he insisted, “then fine, that’s a legitimate culture, and therefore I’m allowed to recreate it.”
(The only time I can remember not eating Chinese on Christmas was several years ago, when my family was vacationing in Rome. No doubt we could have gone to the place that stays open for the American tourists, which surely exists, or stocked up on sandwiches the day before. But instead, we traveled to a kosher place located where the ghetto used to be. The restaurant was the only lighted thing on the street, and it was crowded and cozy. It served Italian food, not Chinese, but the night felt just like Christmas.)
Whether they have fully thought it through or not, Jews who eat Chinese food on Christmas are proclaiming that, for them, Jewishness is what philosophers call a second-order value. In contrast to valuing Judaism on the first order—enjoying the rituals themselves, sincerely adhering to the tenets themselves—they value the fact of their Jewishness. They go out of their way to do it. They may or may not enjoy General Tso’s Chicken, but if they are eating it on Christmas, their prime motivation is not the general’s sweet, spicy deliciousness, but rather the knowledge that they are doing something that in some adapted way reinforces their Jewishness. They are moved by their hearts, not their tastebuds.
Which brings us back to Mile End. Despite Bermanoff’s partaking in a well-worn tradition, he represents something markedly different: Jews are making their own Chinese food now. Bermanoff—who is, perfectly, a law school drop-out—encapsulates a younger Jewish culture. It is more aimless, less rooted—Boerum Hill, not Borough Park—and it sees its tradition less as a comfortable inheritance and more as a starting point. Perhaps it is the fact that Bermanoff is not American and therefore somewhat alienated to begin with that enabled him to more clearly perceive that assimilation and co-optation had ground what it meant to be a “New York Jew” down to little more than a nub with Woody Allen glasses.
Because let’s face it: Jews are not outsiders anymore. It’s not only to Chinese people that we can seem, at times, like “just some big-nosed variety of WASP.” Only among ourselves, on a special day that comes only once a year, can our commonalities and our distinctiveness become apparent.
This story was originally published on December 16, 2010.
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