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.
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!