Talk of the Table

Do you have a favorite cultural reference to Jews and Chinese food?
My favorite is Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar. It’s a story of a young Jewish New York woman who becomes a theater actress and is trying to make it in the non-Jewish arts world, yet still feels the pull of the Jewish tradition. Wouk uses Chinese food as a metaphor for her efforts to cross over into the non-Jewish world. There’s a great scene early in the novel where she visits a Chinese restaurant for the first time and is confronted by slices of roast pork. The smell nauseates her. She puts a piece in her mouth and chews it but just can’t bring herself to swallow it. Much later in the novel, she’s with her playwright boyfriend, and they have a big party with Chinese food at his apartment. She’s a couple of years older now, much more sophisticated, and she sees the Chinese food and thinks: “What’s the fuss about roast pork?” She puts some in her mouth, chews and swallows it and that’s that. The episode shows that she has made the leap into larger society and away from Jewish tradition. Of course, at the end of the book, she actually goes back to the Jewish tradition and, one assumes, doesn’t eat Chinese food anymore.

What does the fortune cookie say about the relationship between Jews and Chinese food?
Jews have moved on. They’ve discovered sushi, and now you have kosher sushi parlors and sushi stations at Jewish weddings. But even sushi is a little bit past its peak. With a little more exploration, Jews will find a lot more to discover in Chinese food.

What’s the latest in Chinese food in the United States?
This is a very good time to eat Chinese food, particularly if you live near an active Chinatown with new immigrants coming into it. There are restaurants opening up now in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities that are not the familiar old Cantonese, Szechuan and Hunan ones. A new favorite of mine now is the cuisine of Dongbei, which is the northeasternmost region of China [once known as Manchuria]. It resembles Korean food in some of its pickled dishes and is delicious. There’s more variety in Chinese food today than we have ever seen before.



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