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.

A Resin-Preserved KFC Drumstick Can Be Yours for $100

Kentucky for Kentucky
Kentucky for Kentucky

Many devoted KFC fans love the chain's crispy fried chicken for its signature taste and mouthwatering aroma. If you just love the way the chicken looks, now you can keep it on your shelf to admire forever. As Food & Wine reports, Kentucky for Kentucky is selling whole KFC drumsticks encapsulated in resin for $100.

Kentucky for Kentucky, an independent organization that promotes the Bluegrass State, unveiled the jars of "Chick-Infinity" on its website earlier in June. The chicken pieces are authentic Colonel's original recipe drumsticks sourced from a KFC restaurant in Coal Run, Kentucky. While they were at their golden-brown peak, Kentucky artist Coleman Larkin submerged them in 16-ounce Mason jars filled with clear resin "with all the care of a Southern mamaw putting up greasy beans for the winter." 

KFC drumstick in a jar.
Kentucky for Kentucky

The project, part of Larkin's Dixieland Preserves line of Southern-themed resin encapsulations (which also includes the preserved poop of a Kentucky Derby winner), aims to present the iconic Kentucky product in a new way. "Honestly, is there anything better than biting into a warm, crispy KFC drumstick after a day at the lake?" Kentucky for Kentucky writes in a blog post, "we wanted to capture that feeling in a product that didn’t disappear into a pile of bones as soon as it’s opened."

Only 50 of the finger-licking artworks were created, and at $100 a piece, they're worth the price of several KFC family buckets. You can grab one while they're still available from the Kentucky for Kentucky online store.

[h/t Food & Wine]

The World’s Largest Underwater Restaurant Just Opened in Norway—Take a Peek Inside

Ivar Kvaal
Ivar Kvaal

Months before it opened, the world's largest underwater restaurant in Norway was already flooded with reservations. Recently, Business Insider reported that Under has finally started serving its first guests. If you can't book a table at the hottest restaurant below sea level, you can look at the photos taken inside to get an idea of the unique dining experience.

In addition to being the largest underwater restaurant on Earth, Under, from the architecture firm Snøhetta, is also the first of its kind in Europe. It's located in the notoriously treacherous waters off Norway's southern coast.

Underwater restaurant jutting out of the sea.
Ivar Kvaal

After entering the angled building from the shore, guests descend into a 100-person dining room with panoramic views of the ocean and passing marine life. The concrete structure is designed to blend seamlessly into the surrounding environment, eventually acting as an artificial reef that attracts plants and animals. The location boasts such biodiversity that Under is also being used as a research center for marine biologists.

Dining room of underwater restaurant.
Ivar Kvaal

Jellyfish in the ocean.
Ivar Kvaal

Once seated, diners will be treated to a seasonal meal from an international team of chefs led by Nicolai Ellitsgaard. The menu highlights locally sourced produce and sustainably caught wildlife. A full meal lasts roughly three-and-a-half to four hours.

Shellfish dish at Under restaurant.
Stian Broch

Spiny crab.
Stian Broch

Dining room of Under, the underwater restaurant.
Ivar Kvaal

Dining room of Under
Inger Marie Grini/Bo Bedre Norge

Seats at Under are fully booked from now to the end of September. If you're content with getting your name on a waiting list, you can try to reserve a table for earlier in the year through the restaurant's website.

[h/t Business Insider]

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