When did large numbers of American Jews begin eating Chinese food?
When Jews first came to the United States, they kept close to their Jewish Eastern European traditions. The tenement districts of the Lower East Side were their world.
They did not leave that world either physically or culturally. Observant East European Jews did not go out to restaurants because they did not know if the restaurant owners who claimed they kept kosher really kept kosher. But the sons and daughters of those immigrants, the first generation to be born in the United States, were a different story. They decided to become Americans and began to do things that Americans did. And one of the things that Americans did at that time was eat Chinese food. Eating Chinese in the 1920s and the 1930s was a very urban, sophisticated thing to do. It was cool, but it was also cheap, so they could afford it.
Were there other reasons why Jews preferred Chinese restaurants to, let’s say, American or Italian restaurants?
Chinese restaurant owners, unlike any other restaurant owners, did not discriminate. They did not care whether they served blacks, Jews or space aliens. They treated all their customers the same. This was unique at a time when a Jewish person could be turned away at the door of a restaurant. Imagine Groucho Marx showing up at Delmonico’s! But the Chinese restaurant owners didn’t care, and they were open 365 days a year. This included Christmas and Easter and all the Christian holidays and on Sundays, so you could get the food any time you wanted.
How did Chinese food become “safe treyf”?
One hurdle for Jews to get over was that Chinese food was filled with non-kosher ingredients like pork and shellfish. Some just held their nose and ate it, and I think after World War II, maybe in the late 1950s, there evolved this humorous concept of “safe treyf.” Obviously, treyf is forbidden but “safe treyf” means it’s forbidden but OK. If you can’t see the pork in the wonton soup stock, well, it’s OK. Or if the shrimp in the shrimp chop suey is chopped up into little tiny pieces so that you really can’t recognize what it is, then it’s OK.
When did kosher Chinese food come on the scene?
The growth of kosher Chinese food began in the 1950s when canny restaurant owners saw a market of observant Jews who did not want the short cuts of “safe treyf.” Restaurants like Bernstein-on-Essex in New York’s Lower East Side began to offer chop suey and chow mein without the roast pork and the shellfish.
Chinese restaurants were initially an urban phenomenon. When did they spread to the suburbs?
This happened after World War II. As Jews moved out of the Lower East Side into Brooklyn, Queens and then out into the suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them. The Chinese restaurant became the family dinner place, the place for Sunday night dinner. The food was exotic, but it was also comfort food.
When did the tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas begin?
Today, on December 25th, the United States is pretty much closed down, but 80 years ago, things were really closed down. There was nothing going on in the streets. It was either church or family at home. So Jews had nothing to do until they discovered Chinese restaurants were open.
It’s hard to find chop suey on the menu these days. What happened?
By the 1960s, the whole chop suey and chow mein thing was getting tired, and people were beginning to drift away from Chinese food. But after the 1965 Immigration Act, Chinese chefs from Taiwan and Hong Kong and from all over Southeast Asia started to open new kinds of Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, especially in New York City and San Francisco. It became chic to go into Chinatown and ferret out the latest and most exotic Chinese restaurant. American Jews were at the forefront of popularizing these new places, especially the Szechuan restaurants with their really spicy food.