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).

 

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So What About Jews and Chinese Food?

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We all know that eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve is a sacred Jewish tradition. Chinese restaurants became a favorite eatery for Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States and to New York City, in particular, in the early twentieth century. 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.

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

Chinese cuisine clearly was an inexpensive and exotic alternative to the more familiar and expensive foods served at Jewish delicatessens. It was a happy coincidence that Chinese restaurants stayed open on Christmas Eve and gave Jews across the United States a natural venue in which to partake of their own version of Christmas dinner. “Eating Chinese” on Christmas was a recognized Jewish preference as early as 1935, when the New York Times reported that restaurant owner Eng Shee Chuck brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark, New Jersey. This is the first recorded incidence of  Chinese take- out and home-delivery to American Jews occurring on Christmas Eve.

“Eating Chinese” soon became a national sensation that defined Christmas-time activity for Jews all over the United States.  As immigrants arrived from other parts of Asia, the concept of “easting Chinese” on Christmas Eve has broadened to other types of Asian cuisine, as evidenced by a recent New York Times Magazine article  entitled “Joy From The World” on December 7, 2014, which reports about a Jewish-Japanese Christmas repast. Sawako Okochi and Aaron Israel meld their traditions together for shared Christmas meal which includes “okonomi-latke.” (A combination of potato pancakes often eaten on Hanukkah and okonomiyaki, a savory pancake popular in Japanese street food.) According to the Times, “what started in their home has made its way onto the menu [on Christmas] this year of their restaurant, Shalom Japan, in Williamsburg…”

As a popular joke reflecting on this affinity for Jews to eat in Chinese restaurants states: “The Jewish people are 5000 years old and the Chinese people are 3000 years old. So what did the Jews eat for 2000 years?” Perhaps you have a story to share about your own Christmas Eve and Christmas Day restaurant outing!