The scene was a freakish one at RedFarm the other night. The tiny modern Chinese restaurant, which opened a few weeks ago in Manhattan, was a veritable who’s who of the food media. Rachael Ray was at a table next to mine; Top Chef‘s Gail Simmons was sitting next to me with RestaurantGirl.com’s Danyelle Freeman; Ace of Cakes star Duff Goldman was a couple of tables away. And circulating freely about the room, making small talk and working the crowd, was neither the chef, the brilliant Joe Ng, nor the owner, Jeffrey Chodorow, but instead a portly, bespectacled Chinese-food nerd named Ed “Eddie Glasses” Schoenfeld, who had put the restaurant concept together. Ng, who lets his cooking do the talking, is essentially a silent partner.
Now, if you’re wondering how a Jewish guy from Brooklyn has come to be the public face of a Chinese restaurant, then you probably aren’t Jewish. The connection between Jews and Chinese food is so well established that it’s been commented on in academic papers and mused about by Chinese and Jewish thinkers alike. There was even a Gilmore Girls episode about it, and what more proof can you need than that? Eddie Glasses is merely the most extreme expression of the trend, a Jewish guy who made himself, by sheer geekery, a Chinese-food guru.
I’m good friends with Schoenfeld, just as I am with Chodorow, another Jew so smitten with Chinese food that he founded his whole empire on a restaurant called China Grill. But I was a little leery of RedFarm, which I feared would be a fusion experiment. Its one literal attempt at Chinese-Jewish food is a pastrami egg roll, which, in my opinion, tastes about as good as it sounds. But there’s no need for such fusion because Chinese food is itself already Jewish food. We like it more than our own cuisine — and who could blame us?
The question as to why Jews are drawn so irresistibly to Chinese food is one I’ve often wondered about. Eddie Glasses (who gets his nickname from sporting all sorts of outlandish eyewear) could have attached himself to the Italian masters, or the French, or even gone off in some other exotic direction like Moroccan or Indian. But his existence as the Ultimate Jewish Chinese-Food Nerd has a kind of dynamic inevitability. Put any two Jews together, and we are likely to start arguing over who has the best scallion pancakes. Schoenfeld had the good fortune and intellectual curiosity to devote himself to some of the midcentury titans of Chinese cuisine — the cooking teacher Grace Yu, the restaurateur David Keh, the chefs T.T. Wang and “Uncle Lou” (Lo Hoy Yen) — and learn everything he could. So he gets the last word, which is a very Jewish thing to want to get. But why Chinese food?
The two groups have neither linguistic nor religious nor geographic commonalities. They aren’t known for intermarrying or for intermingling. Both groups are famously insular, and tend to regard themselves as chosen peoples. And yet, there’s a connection. There are lots of jokes about it. There’s even a restaurant in Los Angeles called Genghis Cohen. But the inroad made by Chinese food has been so profound that even sacred dietary laws are routinely broken for this cuisine. A Jewish household that wouldn’t countenance a single bacon bit at home will consume industrial quantities of spare ribs, roast-pork fried rice and shrimp dumplings. So what gives?
There have been a few theories. One, articulated by the writer Jennifer 8. Lee and many others, is that Jews and Chinese are the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in the U.S. I find this somewhat unconvincing, since the Jewish love of Chinese food is largely unrequited. Jews and Chinese are said to be shoved together cheek by jowl in urban settings, but this stopped being true by midcentury, when both groups began the great suburban diaspora. Schoenfeld thinks Jews are primed for the “gutsy” flavors of Chinese food by their own cuisine, but I disagree with him as well because, as I’ve said in the past, Jewish food is the blandest, most boring in the entire world.
So here is my best guess. The thing to remember about Chinese food is that, besides being cheap, it is eminently suited to take out; at least three-quarters of the Chinese food I ate growing up was at home. And Jews love eating at home. We are intensely familial, home-loving and nuclear; and given that our own food is both bad and laborious (endlessly braised brisket, spattering latkes), Chinese food — varied, fatty and festive — is a better alternative in part because it’s always at hand. It’s a cheap lift; you can think of it as Jewish Prozac. And, beyond this, there is an even greater power of Chinese food in our lives, a sentimental tradition in a secular world. The China Teacup in Brooklyn Heights, where Schoenfeld used to eat as a kid, or Ling-Nam in West Miami and China Land in Atlantic City, N.J., my own egg-roll academies, have been serving essentially the same food for generations. The takeout menu currently on my refrigerator looks just like the one my father had on his, the one he used to stand there gazing at with a mix of puzzlement (maybe ribs and egg foo yong?) and something like adoration. I think that we, as a people, prize comfort above all else, both emotionally and physically. To sit in the living room with a plate of lo mein and half an egg roll is about as safe and stable as life gets for us. That, more than anything else, accounts for our odd abiding love of the most foreign — most domestic — of cuisines.