From Gefilte Fish to Chow Mein …

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Reaching back to my childhood memories, I have a distinct recollection of my Hungarian grandmother’s cooking. The daughter of a pastry chef, she was a talented cook and an amazing baker. I remember homemade gefilte fish, babka, and steaming bowls of chicken soup in which matzoh balls, kreplach and farfal were all floating. I also remember chicken chow mein.

In retrospect, chow mein was not really consistent with the rest of her culinary repertoire. I clearly remember the stewed chicken, onions, celery, and green pepper. I also remember the sliced water chestnuts and toasted noodles. (In those days, we didn’t call it pasta!) Anyway, it did not occur to me until much later in life that chow mein was not what my Christian friends were eating at their grandmothers’ tables. So what of it? Given the long-rooted and clearly demonstrated Jewish affinity for Chinese food, why would it be surprising that Chinese dishes, albeit thoroughly Americanized ones, would turn up in my Hungarian grandmother’s Jewish kitchen?

I am still trying to verify whether my grandmother had any cookbooks or recipe clippings (she may have had “a few”). So, in absence of clear evidence, I have conducted a bit of research. It was the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (second ed.) that pointed the way to The Settlement Cookbook, a tome with decidedly Jewish roots. According to Tablet Magazine’s Leah Koenig, the Settlement Cookbook was “the brainchild of a turn-of-the-century Jewish reformer and philanthropist named Lizzie Black Kander.” In her seminal article about early Jewish cookbooks entitled “Kitchen Judaism,” preeminent food historian and scholar, Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls Kander “the force behind the book.” The same late 19th and early 20th centuries waves of Jewish immigration that have been well-documented in the Lower East Side of New York City also played out in other cities, albiet to a lesser extent. These cities included Milwaukee, where Kander lived. Kander’s origins were in part German-Jewish. When successive waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in Milwaukee, Kander took steps to help them to settle in and to Americanize. Koenig writes: “Kander’s most influential project was a set of cooking classes she developed for new immigrants held at a local settlement house. During the series, students learned how to prepare American staples like pot roast, potato salad, and vanilla ice cream. In addition to culinary instruction, the lessons covered basic nutrition and tips for running a clean and efficient household.”

In 1901, Kandor’s accomplished an extraordinary feat, the publishing of a comprehensive resource known as The Settlement Cookbook. According to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, over many decades and new editions, the original 200-page digest was filled with an array of recipes deriving from: Kander’s own kitchen; the classes; the German-Jewish matrons associated with the project; friends; and, prominent chefs. Over time, The Settlement Cookbook transmogrified into a 560+ page tome. And, as its girth expanded, so did its reach. According to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the earlier editions contained trayf recipes “in the characteristic way” such as: “broiled live lobster, frog legs à la Newburg, shrimp à la Creole, fried oysters, creamed crab meat, and crawfish butter” and for non-kosher hindquarters of beef; however, pork products were for the most part absent.  [Later editions notably include pork products.] Kander, like many of her German-Jewish contemporaries, was not traditionally observant–a fact that created a cultural divide between them and the “new” East European immigrants. The cookbook traversed that cultural divide. According to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, it was the wide-ranging recipes from the German-Jewish and European culinary traditions that extended the appeal of this book beyond the local Jewish community to, at first, the German community of Milwaukee and later to a national audience. Lastly, Koenig notes that The Settlement Cookbook, in its 41st printing, is one of the most highly successful cookbooks of all time.

So it was to a somewhat early edition of this resource that I turned to with respect to Chow Mein. [I was able to access an on-line copy of the tenth edition, published in 1920.] Not only did I find a recipe for chow mein, but also two different chop suey recipes. Interestingly, each of these recipes requires the addition of pork (something my grandmother would never have used).

Whether or not my grandmother had a copy, or whether she received the recipe from someone else, or whether she made it up on her own, in twentieth century America, chow mein apparently was as Jewish as gefilte fish!

See: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Kitchen Judaism,” https://www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/web/kitchenjudaism.pdf.

See: Leah Koenig, https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/199721/settlement-cook-book

For a discussion on the mythical origins of chop suey, see: https://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/2014/8/29/the-many-origin-stories-of-chop-suey

For an on-line edition of The Settlement Cookbook, see: https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Settlement_Cook_Book.html?id=gNYqAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false

To see what we are doing, see: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/21/18151903/history-jews-chinese-food-christmas-kosher-american

Lastly, for our comprehensive resource on American Jews and Christmas, see: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas), and, of course, this blog!

 

 

Jewish Santas: A Mixed Bag…

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Perhaps the most interesting and ironic form of Jewish volunteerism during Christmastime is the phenomenon of the Jewish Santa Claus–Jews who don Santa outfits to play the role of Santa at retail businesses, hospitals, shelters, and private homes. Examples are myriad as illustrated by comedian Alan King, who often told about his encounter with a Yiddish-speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justifies to Alan King his “ho-ho-ho” getup by quipping in Yiddish: “Men makht a lebn“—a man has to make a living!

A pay check, however, is not the main reason Jews volunteer to dress up as Santa. Jews who act out the part of Santa do so for altruistic reasons, some for evoking pleasure and others because Christmas was part of their holiday celebration growing up. Still others, like the one in Alan King’s bit, may do so for commercial gain. No matter the reason or combination of reasons, certain Jewish Santas stand out from the so-called mainstream. Ben Sales of the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) recently reported about Rick Rosenthal, an Orthodox Jew from Atlanta whose full-time profession is to be Santa: “If you look at the world as children do, that’s a better feeling. I’m a better person and a better Jew because I’m Santa.” Rosenthal, according to Sales, has expanded upon his Santa profession. He and his wife run a Santa school, Northern Lights Santa Academy, that “hosts three-day weekend seminars on how to be Santa. The school covers everything from fashioning a good costume to making sure you have legal and insurance protection in place. But the seminars also promise fun times, like a Christmas movie screening and a photo op with a live reindeer. The couple also runs the National Santa Agency, which books a network of 100 Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves for private parties and events.” And, as Sales reports, Rosenthal is a “member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.”

See: https://www.jta.org/2018/12/10/culture/this-santa-claus-is-an-orthodox-jew

For another current example of a Jewish Santa, see: http://jewishjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2018_12.20_JewishJournal.pdf

For more on this topic, See AKosherChristmas blog posting “Where Can I Get a Santa Suit?” dated December 2, 2102, and also the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

 

 

Tradition….Tradition!

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The idea of Jews attending movies on Christmas Eve is neither new nor without historical grounding. In prior a blog posting (December 21, 2015: “Meet Me at the Movies on Christmas Eve”), the historical roots of this Jewish Christmas-time tradition are explored. It is interesting to note that new layers of tradition continue to be added to this activity.

According to Tom Tugend of the JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency), for 11 years, Greg Laemmle, co-owner of a chain of eight art-house cinemas in the Los Angeles area, has screened the classic movie “Fiddler on the Roof” on Christmas Eve. The screenings (in several venues) has taken on Rocky Horror-like proportions, with audience members dressed as characters from Anatevka, the fictional shtetl in which Fiddler is set. Costume contests are held. Fiddler trivia quizzes are highly competitive. A host or hostess, often a celebrity, conducts the event, “keeping the energy level high by leading audience members in song.” This has become, “in ‘Fiddler’ parlance, a tradition.”

And, as with any good idea, success has bred imitation in Chicago (at the Music Box theater) and in Seattle, where the screening on Christmas Day will be accompanied by live klezmer music and kosher Chinese food.

Tugend further reports that, when asked about the screening on Christmas Eve (this year coincident with Erev Shabbat), Laemmle said “When Christmas occurs during the Hanukkah period, we display a lighted menorah in the lobby, and when it coincides with Shabbat, we say the blessings over the wine and challah.”

Because over the years, the audience has become multi-denominational, Laemmle remarks: “We make sure that our Christmas Eve show ends well before 12 o’clock….That way, patrons who wish to do so can walk to a nearby church and attend Midnight Mass.”

Or, as Turgend quips, “Only in America.”

See: https://www.jta.org/2018/12/18/culture/a-new-jewish-christmas-tradition-watching-fiddler-on-the-roof-at-your-local-movie-theater

For more on Jews attending movies on Christmas Eve, see blog posting dated December 21, 2015: “Meet Me at the Movies on Christmas Eve” and also the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

 

The War Between Gefilte Fish and Chop Suey!

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Chinese restaurants are a favorite eatery for Jews on Christmas. Where does this tradition come from? Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to New York City in the early twentieth century lived in close proximity to other ethnic groups. As we have mentioned in our earlier blog posting “So What About Jews and Chinese Food?” on December 09, 2014, the origin of this venerated Christmas Jewish tradition dates back over one hundred years to the Lower East Side of New York City. Jews found Chinese restaurants readily available in urban and suburban areas in America where both Jews and Chinese lived in close proximity.

The first mention of this phenomenon was in 1899 whereby the American Hebrew weekly journal criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, singling out in particular Jews who flock to Chinese restaurants. In 1903, the Yiddish language newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward coined the Yiddish word oysessen–eating out–to describe the growing custom of Jews eating outside the home in New York City.”

Furthermore, Jews chose Chinese restaurants over other ethnic cuisines, such as Italian, because of the absence of any Christian symbols in these venues. The Chinese restaurant was, as sociologists Tuchman and Levine point out, a “safe treyf” (safe non-kosher food) environment in which to enjoy a satisfying and inexpensive meal made with ingredients that were desirable and familiar to Eastern Europeans, including onions, garlic, and vegetables. Comfort and anonymity can also be found in the foods served, which while not being kosher per se, are disguised through a process of cutting, chopping, and mincing.  Pork, shrimp, lobster, and other so-called dietary “abominations” are no longer viewed in their more natural states. Pork, for example, wrapped and hidden inside a wonton looks remarkably like that of Jewish kreplach.” Also, the absence of milk in Chinese cuisine shields Jewish patrons from mixing meat with milk, a violation of kosher laws. In essence, eating Chinese food helped ease the transition from kosher to non-kosher eating.

The “war between chop suey and gefilte fish” did not go unnoticed in the Jewish press. The daily Yiddish newspaper Der Tog ran an article in 1928 in which the reporter commented on this culinary tug-of-war between old and new world eating habits. “Down with Chop Suey! Long Live Gefilte Fish!” was the battle cry sounded and backlash waged by those defending traditional cultural habits.

The following advertisement appeared in the Yiddish Daily Forward on December 2, 1922:

Translation as follows:

YOU MUST:

Eat and dance with us, where you’ll feel at home

TANGERINE GARDENS

556 FULTON STREET near FLATBUSH AVE

Phone, Sterling 2797 Brooklyn N.Y.

CHINESE DINNER

75 Cents

service from 5-9 pm

CHICKEN CHOW MEIN

our speciality

MENU

chicken mushroom soup

ENTREE

chicken mushroom chow mein

subgum chow mein

chicken chop suey with mushrooms or pineapple

lobster or subgum eng peyang

DESSERTS

miniature preserved oranges and almond cakes

and oolong tea

To see what we are doing, see: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/21/18151903/history-jews-chinese-food-christmas-kosher-american

For more on this, see AKosherChristmas Blog Post “So What About Jews and Chinese Food?” on December 09, 2014,  and, of course, the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

 

All I want for Christmas is… Moo-shu!

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The Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD), a “new kind of museum that brings the world of food to life with exhibits you can taste, touch, and smell” is hosting an immersive culinary and cultural experience CHOW x JUDAISM to explore the nexus between Jews, Chinese Food, and Christmas! Or, in MOFAD’s own words: “to learn more about how these two communities found a seat at the same table.”

CHOW x JUDAISM is on Friday, December 21, 2018 from 6:30 pm until 9:00 pm at MOFAD Lab, 62 Bayard Street in Brooklyn, New York, and will feature:

  • Live Chef Demo by Chef Julie Cole (Operations Manager & Chef, Nom Wah Tea Parlor) and tastings prepared by MOFAD’s executive chef
  • Engaging Presentation by Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut (Author, A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish)
  • “Speed Dialogues” facilitated by comedians Mic Nguyen and Fumi Abe (Co-Hosts, Asian Not Asian podcast)
  • Complimentary beer provided by Brooklyn Brewery
  • A Kosher Chinese Night Market featuring small bites and Kosher wines

For more information and tickets, see: https://www.mofad.org/events/chow-x-judaism

https://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/41/51/24-jewish-chinese-christmas-talk-2018-12-21-bk.html

https://forward.com/culture/416273/why-do-jews-eat-chinese-food-on-christmas/

See also: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/21/18151903/history-jews-chinese-food-christmas-kosher-american

Also, see AKosherChristmas Blog Post “We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas” (December 15, 2015) and, of course, the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).