I’m posting this on May 29th, which, I don’t think I need to remind you, is the 100th anniversary of the riots at the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in Paris.
That’s right, the French rioted over a ballet.
According to eyewitness accounts, two outraged parties began arguing even as the Introduction was being performed. Fistfights broke out before, inexplicably, inevitably, the groups turned their anger on the orchestra.
“Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on,” said one of the musicians.
A theatrical magazine reviewing the performance noted that the disturbance, while deplorable, was simply “a rowdy debate between two ill-mannered factions,” which, if you think about it, is a nifty encapsulation of the entire course of human history. One critic wrote that he could barely hear the music over the mayhem and wondered whether, “We could ask M. Astruc … to set aside one performance for well-intentioned spectators? … We could at least propose to evict the female element.” (Italics mine.)
Does this mean that the people who were causing the commotion were women? Can that be?
I’ve witnessed some venom-spitting arguments between women over incomprehensible things like the proper way to hang a roll of toilet paper. Once, when I was considerably younger and stupider, I tried to act as peacemaker between two warring females. It was like tripping face-first into a propeller.
But I have trouble imagining a woman being so outraged over a musical performance that she’d hurl a brick at an oboe player.
We Americans will probably never riot over a ballet. Sure, we could manufacture some outrage if a dancer’s boob accidentally flopped out (“Won’t someone please think of the children?!”), but that would probably only lead to an eight-month Congressional investigation that would cause a minor ratings spike for Cspan and a $20 million fine for the ballet company’s backers.
No, we reserve our rioting for serious matters, like winning the World Series. We can’t seem to celebrate a victory or defeat in anything (heck, even “Dancing With The Stars” for all I know) without setting fire to some police cars and racing out of Best Buy with an armful of Blu-Ray players.
That’s why I was comforted to read Jennifer 8. Lee’s “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. ” Ms. Lee wonderfully recounts the Great Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989, when the US faced a kosher duck shortage that threatened to sever the almost mystical bond between American Jews and Chinese food.
Lee explains, “For one thing, Chinese people and Jews were among the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in the United States, which meant they didn’t share the same days of worship as the rest of the predominantly Protestant and Catholic country. Even today, Christmas is often the busiest day of the year for Chinese Restaurants in New York, Florida, and other Jewish-American urban hubs. At Shun Lee, an upscale restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the onslaught of Jewish customers begins at noon and does not stop until eleven p.m., making Christmas twice as busy as the next-busiest day of the year…
“(Perhaps) Chinese food helped the generation of immigrant Jews feel more American, in part by making them feel more cosmopolitan at a time when they were trying to shed their image as hicks from eastern Europe. Chinese food used to symbolize worldiness. As Tuchman and Levine write: ‘Of all the peoples whom immigrant Jews and their children met, of all the foods they encountered in America, the Chinese were the most foreign, the most ‘un-Jewish.’ Yet Jews defined this particular foreignness not as forbidding but as appealing, attractive, and desirable. They viewed Chinese restaurants and food as exotic and cosmopolitan and therefore as good.'”
When America’s only kosher duck farm closed in 1989, rabbi-approved duck began to vanish. A group of rabbis and businesspeople persuaded a South Dakota poultry farmer to fill in the gap, but it would take time to win kosher certification. In the meantime, the supply dwindled and prices skyrocketed.
Although the duck crisis had national implications, the focal point was the exclusive Moshe Dragon Chinese Restaurant in Washington, D.C. Moshe Dragon was the first kosher Chinese restaurant in D.C. and employed its own mashgiach, or kosher cop, to ensure that everything was, well, kosher. Because Moshe Dragon was the Chinese restaurant in the nation’s capitol, where the nation’s media have a ridiculously large influence, the restaurant earned a national cachet.
It had to adhere to the highest standards.
Moshe Dragon’s mashgiach was baffled when he entered the kitchen on August 21, 1989 and discovered 13 ducks roasting in the oven and 17 in the freezer. He immediately suspected that the birds in question were non-kosher. A rabbinical council examined the issue and, after months of bitter recriminations and countercharges, it was determined that the ducks were indeed kosher. Yet, there was so much rancor over the issue that many people didn’t accept the ruling, the mashgiach lost his job, and the manager had a nervous breakdown. Ultimately, Moshe Dragon was shuttered, only to be resurrected as The Royal Dragon by an Iranian-American Orthodox couple.
That’s how we do it in America. When something goes amiss, we investigate, reputations are destroyed, people are hounded and businesses reduced to rubble.
Anyway, Lee’s “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is a fascinating look at the particular variety of Chinese cuisine that has blossomed on the American landscape. She notes that there are some 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined. That’s led to some innovative recipes that would baffle native Chinese. Things like chop suey, chow mein, and fortune cookies.
Lee travels to General Tso’s hometown in Hunan Province to learn if anyone is even aware of a savory American dish named for their 19th century hometown hero — nope, but they do offer dog.
She explains how PF Chang’s overarching design theme is death and how composing fortune cookie fortunes takes a psychic toll on their writers. Asians are baffled that American diners reject fortunes that are in any way negative. A Shinto priest (the Japanese invented the fortune cookie) explains to Lee that, “Life isn’t all happy. You have to have bad messages and bad fortunes because that is how you change course to save yourself. The point of a fortune is to give you direction in life.”
Of course, there’s plenty of good news in those sweet, sweet fortunes — Lee tracks down the 110 winners of a $84 million Powerball lottery who had chosen their magic numbers from a mass-produced batch of cookies.
“The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is a rollicking travelogue of a culinary journey that crosses continents and centuries. Lee is by turns earnest, philosophical and affectionate for this cuisine that’s captured the palates of so many Americans. We’ve loved this stuff passionately ever since a harried 19th century chef threw some leftovers into a wok and served his American diners a plate of Chop Suey (“Odds and Ends”).
Now that I think about it, it’s pretty clear that we may riot over Chinese food.