Shithouse rat

I'm a bipolar writer in the Naked City. I'm not playing with a full deck. I don't have all my dots on the dice. My cheese is sliding off my cracker. I don't have both oars in the water. I'm a bubble off plum. In other words, I'm crazier than a shithouse rat. These are my stories. Comments--short or long, nasty or nice--always welcome!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

New York Story #3


fortune cookie
Originally uploaded by h.
ELVIRA'S THEORY OF CHINESE TAKEOUT-RELATED GENTRIFICATION

Ever notice how many movies have the dramatic "pouring rain" scene? When the director really wants to give you the "climactic, emotionally charged moment," a good rainstorm is always in the offing.

To me, Chinese takeout/delivery has the same sort of semiotic significance, especially in New York films. When Woody Allen and the pubescent Mariel Hemingway snuggle apres sex watching old films on TV, they eat their Chinese in bed straight out of the carton. In the Godfather, as Michael Corleone prepares himself to dine with--and murder--police chief McCluskey and mob rival Solozzo over a plate of the best Italian veal in the city, the family waits for word of the location of the meeting while picking at the remnants of their meal from the Chinese food containers strewn all over the dining room table. To me, Chinese food delivery signals some level of informal yet significant intimacy. And with this city's world famous Chinatown and ubiquitious restaurants representing all the provinces and regions of China--from Szechuan to Hong Kong--Chinese food definitely spells New York to me.

In New York, one of the most reliable signposts of a prosperous neighborhood--meaning one with all the amenities you could ask for, and the prices to match--is the quality and variety of its restaurants, both eat-in and takeout. In my old ritzy Upper East Side neighborhood, you could step outside, walk down the block, and sample cuisines from all over the world. And as a matter of course, you could also get a vast variety of great food delivered straight to your door, In fact, there were so many takeout places slipping menus under the doors that some apartment vestibules posted signs that sternly admonished, "No menus."

When I moved to the Lower East Side from the Upper East Side of New York City about 15 years ago, I did so reluctantly. At the time the neighborhood was so under-the-radar unhip it didn't even seem to count as part of Manhattan. And the dearth of local restaurants was a culture shock as well. Some great places were within walking distance, but none of them delivered. If you wanted to get a pastrami on rye from Katz's--the famous deli on Houston Street where the "orgasm" scene from "When Harry Met Sally" was filmed--you had a 15 minute walk ahead of you. Chinatown was likewise a short stroll away, but it may as well have been a continent when you were jonesing for some good chow fun at 10 pm and wanted to stay in. So at the time, the only game in town were the really cheap storefront Chinese joints, where everything was gloppy and greasy.

Still and all, there's nothing quite like Chinese takeout--even the worst variety--when you're in a certain mood--say, lazy and hungry. For me, Chinese will always be the ultimate comfort delivery food. Wonton Soup is like a Chinese version of Matzoh ball soup, aka Jewish penecillin--and most places can at least make that without mishap. And if you've been partying and have the munchies, Chinese is really a perfect way to end the evening sans cooking and a sinkful of dishes to face the morning after.

Moreover, Chinese in New York is the great equalizer. Even the poorest family can usually afford to spring for it now and then, because it's still relatively cheap. As you get into the tonier zip codes, the offerings are of much higher quality and price, but nevertheless Chinese is a kind of universal New York birthright, available to all who seek it.

In any case, a number of years after gentrification finally took hold on the Lower East Side, the variety of restaurants--and with it, the takeout/delivery optons--became much more varied. You can now order in pizza, Indian food, Japanese, burgers, Vietnamese, and some great stuff direct from Chinatown.

In BG's working class Bronx 'hood, the Chinese restaurants are still of the lower grade variety. The joint we ordered from for quite a bit was so-so at best, but in the past year the quality had slipped even more seriously downhill. So last night I looked through a few of the other menus that get left under BG's door--most of which he throws away--and decided to try a new place.

I didn't expect much, but I was pleasantly surprised--even shocked--at the difference in quality. For one thing, the fried noodles that went with the soup and chow mein we ordered were packed in 2 inch square ZIP LOCK bags--an absolute first for me. Instead of fighting over two packets of hot sauce, we got a bagful of condiments. We ordered lots of fried stuff--always a precarious move when it comes to cut rate cuisine. But all of it--the fried wontons, chicken, egg rolls--were totally non-greasy and terrific. It wasn't the best I'd had by any means, but it was a definite cut above the usual for these parts.

I realized what this meant. Along with the other gradual signs of a neighborhood on the rise, the fact that the delivery options were getting slightly more classy meant that BG's neighborhood was becoming a bit more classy as well. Could luxury coop living and a Starbucks on every corner be far behind?

Well, yes, they could. But as I tell BG constantly, that day will surely come in due time. He doesn't believe me, but I've seen it happen before, in other New York areas that everyone had long written off as perpetual slums. In short, my theory is thus: If you want to chart the upward mobility and economic growth of a New York neighborhood, look first to its Chinese restaruant takeout menus.

I'll save the other signs of gentrification for another post, but all I can say is that the Chinese we had last night made me feel like I was getting in on the ground floor of yet another Chinese cultural revolution in another New York neighborhood. And I have to tell you, it didn't suck.

NOTE:: This is the third in an occasional series on life in New York City. For New York Story #1, click here. New York Story #2 can be found here.

37 Comments:

At 9:22 AM, Blogger fugusashi said...

Interesting observations. Now I'm hungry for Chinese!

 
At 11:31 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Paula:

Thanks--yeah, talking or writing about any food is a terrible "trigger" for me (lol).

 
At 12:57 PM, Blogger dan said...

I love Chinese.

It's the quintessential food for ordering when you're alone.

 
At 1:32 PM, Blogger elvira black said...

Dan:

Yes, Chinese is very comforting, especially for those nights alone snuggled in front of the TV, n'est pas? I've often found that to be the case, anyway.

 
At 5:17 PM, Blogger e.e. said...

ahhhh... Chinese IS the ultimate comfort take-out food! You are so right!
When I was sick some weeks back one of the best things I did for myself was get the wonton soup.
One of my best friends is Chinese (she is on Hong Kong now, visiting her dad), and one of the best treats she gives us when we all get together is a trip into Boston's Chinatown, and she will order off of the Chinese menu.
It does make a difference!

 
At 5:59 PM, Blogger Justine said...

I've heard Chinese is very popular among Jews in NY because they food is minced and mixed up - so how are you supposed to tell whether its egg pork beef chicken or all of the above mixed in together?

I agree on wonton soup in a chicken stock - its perfect for fixing the flu. And fun to make, if you've got the time.

I'm hungry too now!

 
At 6:01 PM, Blogger Justine said...

speaking of gentrification: 'Do The Right Thing' directed by Spike Lee - seen it?

 
At 8:13 PM, Blogger !ce said...

I like Chinese food. My friend and I were enjoying some last week. Both he and the food were yummy. I can always tell what is in something like lo mein, which is my favorite. I'd like to conclude by saying something I say to both my friend and the dogs. Good furry puppy.

 
At 8:39 PM, Blogger NewYorkMoments said...

Here's where I have to differ with everybody. I like Chinese, but I can only do it about once a month. Don't know why, but anymore than that & it makes me want to hurl.

 
At 1:09 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 1:10 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

crazylittlekitty:

Hong Kong style Chinese is great stuff too. And you know you're in an authentic Chinatown place when a lot of Chinese go there--especially whole families dining around a big table together.

 
At 1:21 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Justine:

You are so kooky! No, in general Jews don't like their food minced and mixed up any more or less than anyone else. However, if you're an Orthodox observant Jew (a minority), and keep kosher, you can never mix daily products and meat products--it's against Kosher law. So that's even less mixed up than everyone else.

It is, however, quite possible that Jews are particularly partial to Chinese food in NY--especially on Christmas day. The typical New York Jew likes to spend Christmas Day dining on Chinese and going to the movies. Why? Well, I guess some Chinese don't celebrate Christmas, or at least don't close that day. And the movies aren't too crowded--just a bunch of Jews trying to keep off the streets (lol).

Yes, I've seen Do the Right Thing but it was awhile ago. It was kind of shocking back when it first came out, but Spike Lee likes to mix it up and be controversial. He's not afraid to take the stereotypes and culture clashes of New Yorkers head on. New York is such a crowded city that sometimes people are bound to step on each other's turf, I guess--because nowadays nobody's turf is a given in NY anyway.

 
At 1:24 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Ice:

You are koo koo also. Another good thing about Chinese is that you can always order a vegetarian dish--though I wouldn't swear that it didn't have some meat residue left over from other dishes or the oil or something.

 
At 1:26 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

newyorkmoments:

Speaking of Chinese and hurling--it used to be that Chinese food was loaded with MSG, which can leave you feeling very bloated. But now a lot of places adverise "no MSG," at least. A steady diet of Chinese food--or at least only one kind--can get redundant like everything else, I suppose. But it's nice to know it's always there if you want it.

 
At 9:48 AM, Blogger !ce said...

I am koo koo how? I just make the best of what is on the buffet. I avoid the pork in the pork lo mein. I avoid the chicken in the chicken and broccoli. I get my friend to take my hand for a moment after talking about a dream I had about him. The next time we chilled, he said he was shaking my hand, but there was no actual shaking involved. So as a test, I got him to shake my hand a few more times. Anyway, I always know where to get really groovy food. Now, I shall go and sing a song of Emmylou Harris.

 
At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blackie,

Two quick stories about Chinese take-out food. Neither come close to the variety and magnitude of your Pacific Rim experiences, but I'll simply give you the outer NY POV, as I see it.

The first one is about our little hometown Chinese restaurant, called the Panda Garden. At least once or twice a month I call ahead and order 3 or 4 different type of entrees in which I then drive by and pick up on the way home from work. (They don't actually do home deliveries like yours do, I'm sure). Anyway, the 4 of us (S, B, N, and I), put them on a "Lazy Susan" and spin the wheel until we get what we want. Very ecletic thinking, and eating, right? It's the only humane way to eat buffet style at home.

2nd, is when I go to Chicago about every two years on business and stay on the SW side of town, near Westmont. There is a small strip-mall across from the hotel I stay at that has a Oriental Food Court inside. Nearly every night, I swing by in the early evening at about 6PM and order something from the 1st one, then the 2d one the 2d night, and so on. There are about 6 or 7 separate oriental places (only take out), so it takes about a week to go through them all. Sometimes I eat in the open court area and listen to the many conversations going on by other Asian descent families eating there too. Or, I just hoof it back to the hotel to treat myself to a delicious meal.

And, there is a small ice cream shop in the same place also. So, I get my sweettooth fix too! Very heavenly!

BLLB

 
At 3:31 PM, Blogger elvira black said...

Ice:

I think I meant koo koo because you call your friends good furry puppy. But if you were referring to me, I guess it's a compliment, and for that I thank you.

 
At 3:36 PM, Blogger elvira black said...

BLLB:

That lazy Susan idea is a stroke of genius! Also, from what I've seen at Chinese restaurants where Chinese families eat, they too do something akin to that. Usually they sit at a big circular table so it's easy to reach everything. As I may have said, if you want really good, authentic Chinese, go where the Chinese go.

As for the food court, ice cream place, etc.--oy, you're really speaking my language! But you know how BG puts me through the guilt wringer with these things. After your comment I am dying to order a loadful of Chinese, but if I do, I'm gonna get reamed out by BG. Is it worth it? Maybe so!!

 
At 4:41 PM, Blogger Walker said...

I LOVE CHINESE FOOD!!!!
Ok I love food in general but Chinese food is my favorite.
I live 3 blocks from chinatown which is next to little Italy and getting great real Chinese food.
I should actually point out that China town is all China town it is more like oriental town because there are Vietnames and Cambodian and a couple of Indian restaurants the and lets not forget Tai food also.
I don't order is I usuall y go there and pick it up and take it home.
It's great sitting there alone or with someone picking at it with a set of cheap chop sticks and talking.
It has that casual feel to it and the flavors can creat a mood in it's self.
Cantonese is mild and relaxing Sichuan is spicy and exciting there are 8 different types of cuisins and i dont want to go into a cooking infomercial but I think they creat a mood or sooth a mood.
Also the simplicity of the meal makes it so much more comforing in lifes complicated twists and turns.
I think that eating with the chop sticks also gives it a more casual feel to it alowing you to savour the flavers of the meal.
Its a good way to live ones life. Takeing it slow and easy and enjoying all the flavours life has to offer.

 
At 5:50 PM, Blogger !ce said...

It's not left incomplete. I always pat him on the back when I call him that. Same with the puppies. Actually, that reminds me of something. After hearing her music, he said that he could see why I relate to Emmylou. Do you see that?

 
At 9:51 PM, Blogger digibrill said...

This post rocks. Chinese food rocks. You rock.

 
At 4:06 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Ice:

Not kookoo because you eat Chinese food and pick out the meat. Kookoo because you "shake hands" with a guy who probably has kookoo ca-ca on his hands because he only washes them on alternate days. But whatever turns you on! And I guess it does.

 
At 4:13 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Walker:

I know how much you appreciate different ethic foods, as I do. And like me, you live close to Chinatown and Little Italy--only in Canada instead of New York. Isn't it great?

Yes, it's terrific the way you can sample all sorts of Asian food, esp when they're in close proximity. They all have a certain "Asian" je ne sais quoi, but all are different as well. And I hear you on the eight different styles of Chinese provincial cuisine.

I'm trying to think seriously of what America has contributed to the cuisines of the world--hamburgers and hot dogs? Now that's food for thought.

 
At 4:14 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Digi:

Awww, that is so sweet of you! (blushing and stammering).

 
At 11:18 AM, Blogger Lord Boinkingham said...

I love the NYC bits. You keep making me wanna move back! Keep 'em coming.

 
At 11:19 AM, Blogger !ce said...

I have so much fun with him that it's worth the risk.

 
At 4:48 PM, Blogger Walker said...

Let me help you, egg rolls and pizza as we know them, are American inventions but our countries are a melting pot for culture and not a culture in its self....I could be wrong.
We are a world hybrid of culture.
Just walk down the street and you will see an Asian person eating Italian food a Greel eating Tai a German pigging out on Chinese and so on.
Our contribution to world cuisine is opening different types of food to everyone who would never have experienced it otherwise.

 
At 6:07 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Lord Buckingham:

Thank you--I'm glad you like 'em. I will probably be doing another New York story very soon--but it will be a "darker" one.

 
At 6:09 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Ice:

"I have so much fun with him that it's worth the risk"--well, since it's only hand contact rather than unsafe sex, I guess that's cool.

 
At 6:19 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Walker:

Yes, what you say about the merging of cultures in North America is very true! This includes the "melting pot" of our cuisine as well.

It's kind of analogous, I think, to the English language, which includes a rougue collection of words appropriated from virtually every nation. If a word is used often enough it becomes part of our native tongue. In France, on the other hand, from what I hear they actually have to have a committee approve a new word before it is legitimate. Weird, huh?

 
At 11:45 AM, Blogger Mad Munkey said...

I'm just curious why chinese take-out cartons in movies are always clean. No sauce dripping out of them like there is in the real world. I'd like some movie chinese please... lol

Oh, btw - I'm Mad Munkey, nice to meet you. I'm blog surfing through links from my readers sites. I think I'm about 8 times removed now. lol I've entered a completely different circle of blogs where no-one looks familiar.

 
At 12:25 PM, Blogger elvira black said...

Mad Munkey:

Well, you know how it is on movie sets--lots of special makeup, lighting, glam touch ups. I heard that when they do food shots they put vaseline on the meat to make it look extra moist. Ugh. Some things it's better not to know about.

I love that six degrees of blog separation pheonomenon. I'm glad you visited--love your site.

 
At 5:55 PM, Blogger !ce said...

Of course. He doesn't believe in unsafe sex. That reminds me of comments on the subject by a couple of people I sometimes think of myself as. Madonna once said that if she is wearing a harness and someone is riding her around like a farm animal, she doesn't consider that unsafe sex. Cyndi Lauper has said that masturbation is the safest sex.

 
At 7:09 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Ice:

Love the Madonna quote. As far as the Cyndi Lauper quote--well, of course masturbation is the safest sex--although I'd shitcan that statement when it comes to people who insist of inserting, say, light bulbs or gerbils up their rectum--which has been known to happen.

Being as you're asexual and all, I've got to wonder if you ever indulge yourself.

Which reminds me of a Woody Allen joke:

Don't knock masturbation. It's sex with someone I love.

 
At 2:26 AM, Blogger !ce said...

No comment on my personal experience. I will tell you a story though. There was a girl I went to high school with. People made fun of her because of an unfortunate incident. Some people said she had an attitude, but she was very nice to me. She used to like to insert hot dogs vaginally. One became stuck, and she had to go to the hospital to have it removed. People found out about this, and after that she was referred to as the "hot dog girl."

 
At 7:52 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Ice:

OK, I forgot that "no comment on my personal experience" is your middle name...what a tease.

Thanks for the hot dog story...it's funny. Just when I though you were wandering off topic again, you snap back into formation with a food related comment for a food oriented post!

As for the veracity of the unfortunatle hot dog incident: to paraphrase Nirvana, that story smells like teen bullshit.

But since I wasn't actually there (thank the lord) I'll have to demur to your authority on the matter.

 
At 5:55 PM, Blogger !ce said...

Okay, I'll make a slight comment. It depends on whether or not I'm thinking of my friend. I figure it's okay to say this since I've made similar comments to his face. I simply refuse to believe that in your vast experience, you have nothing similar to offer. You must know of someone who did something remotely similar.

 

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