Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, Where are you having dinner?

2010 was the year of the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice.
During the hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham asked Kagan: “Where were you on Christmas day?”
Kagan replied: “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

I’m very aware of the common meme that Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas because that’s the only kind of restaurant that’s open. It’s the subject of a song.
I even know the owners of a Chinese restaurant in Cleveland Heights who say that it’s their best day all year – and they believe that all the customers are Jewish. Personally, I’ve never eaten in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas, but I concede the point: it must be where all my fellow Jews spend the afternoon or evening (and then go to a movie).

Food writer Mimi Sheraton, writing in 1990, summarized the long-term Jewish love of Chinese food (which in fact continues for the rest of the year, not just at Christmas. She wrote:
The longstanding love affair Jews have had with Chinese food ... was a well-known fact of the restaurant business in Flatbush 50 years ago. Even many Jews who observed kosher dietary rules at home went to Chinese restaurants, and for those who were not kosher, Chinese was the traditional takeout fare on Sunday nights.

We can only guess at the reasons, ranging from historic speculations - such as, perhaps, one of the lost tribes of Israel having wandered through China - to more practical surmises like a shared taste for chicken soup, tea and dishes seasoned with garlic, celery and onion. It is also significant that Cantonese restaurants use no dairy products, a comforting fact even to Jews who are not kosher but are still unaccustomed to the flavor of butter and cream with meat.

References to Jews eating in Chinese restaurants go back as far as the late 19th century – yes, more than 100 years ago. In the 1920s, Jews ate in Chinese restaurants so frequently that a Yiddish paper ran an article titled “Who won the war between gefilte fish and chop suey?” I think most secular Jews have expanded their interests and explored restaurants of many other ethnic origins. And several generations of rejection of the dietary laws mean that one doesn’t even have a sense of transgression when eating moo-shu pork or shrimp-filled egg rolls: it seems perfectly natural.

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