The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

iStock
iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

7 International Names for American Products

Maksym Kozlenko, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Maksym Kozlenko, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

While available around the world, American products aren't always called by their red-white-and-blue names. Companies have to adapt to various languages and cultures, and what works stateside doesn't always translate. Here are seven American goods with unfamiliar international names.

1. Hungry Jack's (Burger King in Australia)

A Hungry Jack's drive thru sign
A Hungry Jacks sign in Bathurst, New South Wales

In 1971, Jack Cowin bought the Australian franchise for Burger King from Pillsbury Company (which owned the chain at the time). But because the name was already registered in Australia, he used the name Hungry Jack—originally an American pancake mix—instead. In 1999, Burger King began opening restaurants under its own name in Australia, but they combined with Hungry Jack's in 2003.

2. Doritos Cool American (Doritos Cool Ranch in Europe)

Cool American Doritos on a shelf
Cool American Doritos in Iceland
Funky Tee, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Cool Ranch is one of the most popular Doritos flavors in the United States. However, in many parts of Europe, the flavor is known as Cool American because Europeans often call Ranch sauce "American" sauce. Very cool, indeed.

3. Coca-Cola Light (Diet Coke in Europe)

Diet Coke is called "Coca-Cola Light" throughout Europe. The soft drink is exactly the same as its American counterpart, but the word light is associated more with lower-calorie items in Europe than diet.

4. TK Maxx (TJ Maxx in Ireland)

A TK Maxx in London
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for TK Maxx

The American department store TJ Maxx is known as TK Maxx in Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom as well as in Australia and parts of Europe. Its parent company, TJX Companies, re-named it so Irish and British customers wouldn't confuse the store with the established retailer TJ Hughes, which is quite popular in the UK.

5. Kraft Dinner (Kraft Macaroni & Cheese in Canada)

Boxes of Kraft Dinner wrapped in plastic
Alan Levine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Canada, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is known as Kraft Dinner or simply KD. Kraft introduced the product as Kraft Dinner in both Canada and the United States in 1937. However, in the late '50s, Kraft added the words macaroni & cheese to its packaging of Kraft Dinner when the term gained more prominence. It wasn't until the '70s that Kraft Canada started using bilingual labeling (French and English) on all of its packaging. As a result, Canadian Kraft products included the words Kraft Dinner in a bigger and bolder font on one side of the box with Díner Kraft on the other side. The words macaroni & cheese were in a smaller font, so Canadians adopted it as merely Kraft Dinner. (Americans can buy a box of the Canadian version for themselves on Amazon.)

6. Meister Proper (Mr. Clean in Germany)

Bottles of Meister Proper on store shelves
Alf van Beem, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
 

Procter & Gamble’s Mr. Clean is a global product, so its name has been translated into various languages, including Maestro Limpio in Mexico, Monsieur Propre in France, and Meister Proper in Germany. It’s the same product—with the same sailor mascot—as you can find in the United States.

7. Walkers Potato Crisps (Lay's Potato Chips in the UK)

Walkers potato chips on a shelf
Ben Babcock, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Founded in 1948, Walkers quickly became the United Kingdom’s leading potato crisps snack food company. However, Pepsi acquired Walkers and re-branded it with the Lay’s logo and products in 1989. The snack food is exactly the same, but PepsiCo decided to keep the Walkers name to ensure customer brand loyalty in the United Kingdom. Walkers also has more exotic flavors than its American counterpart, including American Cheeseburger, Lamb & Mint, and South African Sweet Chutney. Adventurous Americans can get some of them, including Prawn Cocktail, Tomato Ketchup, and Worcester Sauce as well as a variety of different meat flavors on Amazon.

A version of this article first ran in 2016.

This 3D-Printed Sushi is Customized For You Based on the Biological Sample You Send In

Open Meals
Open Meals

Many high-end restaurants require guests to make a reservation before they dine. At Sushi Singularity in Tokyo, diners will be asked to send fecal samples to achieve the ideal experience. As designboom reports, the new sushi restaurant from Open Meals creates custom sushi recipes to fit each customer's nutritional needs.

Open Meals is known for its experimental food projects, like the "sushi teleportation" concept, which has robotic arms serving up sushi in the form of 3D-printed cubes. This upcoming venture takes the idea of a futuristic sushi restaurant to new extremes.

Guests who plan on dining at Sushi Singularity will receive a health test kit in the mail, with vials for collecting biological materials like urine, saliva, and feces. After the kit is sent back to the sushi restaurant, the customer's genome and nutritional status will be analyzed and made into a "Health ID." Using that information, Sushi Singularity builds personalized sushi recipes, optimizing ingredients with the nutrients the guest needs most. The restaurant uses a machine to inject raw vitamins and minerals directly into the food.

To make things even more dystopian, all the sushi at Sushi Singularity will be produced by a 3D-printer with giant robotic arms. The menu items make the most of the technology; a cell-cultured tuna in a lattice structure, powdered uni hardened with a CO2 laser, and a highly detailed model of a Japanese castle made from flash-frozen squid are a few of the sushi concepts Open Meals has shared.

The company plans to launch Sushi Singularity in Tokyo some time in 2020. Theirs won't be the first sushi robots to roll out in Japan: The food delivery service Ride On Express debuted sushi delivery robots in the country in 2017.

[h/t designboom]

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