The American-Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas is my favorite ritual to partake in, second only to pulling in a cigarette on a cool fall morning. To me, this meals offers Jews a way to coalesce around a dinner table and savor in the some of the finest, most succulent dishes on this planet. It’s like a mini-Shabbat that offers a break in the capitalist zoo that is Christmas (and Hanukkah), although it is nonetheless consumerism, just tastier.
Chinese food—that is, real Chinese food—is unbeatable. Trust me, I know: I used to live and work in China. There, I ate Chinese food every day, which makes it just food, but boy is it miles better than anything else on the planet, including old world Jewish food. (Wanna argue with me on this? Try some red-braised pork belly named after Mao. Then try that lox bagel and let me know what’s what.)
In the little city of 6 million people where I lived in Southeastern China, I used to eat at a restaurant that only served Northeastern-style cuisine (Dōngběi cài) nearly every day for a year. It was an obsession. This regional cuisine presents lots of “warming” dishes—brown mushroom soups with an entire chopped chicken in it; fried pork everything; a variation of the beloved scallion pancake. It was heaven. It’s the stuff of a last meal. And there’s the regional cuisine of the Sichuan province, which is famous for its spicy food. Once, I went with a friend to an all-you-can-eat hot pot joint there. This begins with a base, followed veggies and whatever protein you like—fish, pig, chicken, meat, whateva. Between the two of us, we ate 12 whole fish. Chinese in and from China has no comparison.
And then there’s American Chinese food, which is A-OK with me. American Chinese food vis-à-vis Chinese Chinese food is like comparing the best chocolate in the world to a Snickers bar: Both’ll do just fine. And there’s no more American American-Chinese food than General Tso’s Chicken (which for the longest time I called General Gao’s Chicken and still do damnit). And guess what? The inventor of the dish, Peng Chang-kuei—a legend among chef legends whose inspiration behind the dish was a 19th-century Chinese military leaer from the Hunan province—recently died at the age of 98.
So this Christmas, as you and your Jewish brethren take to your local Chinatowns or order in from the only place in town that open, your first order—on this day and always—should be General Tso’s Chicken, the anchor to your enjoyment and pain.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.