L'Chaim / Living Judaism
February 15, 1998 / 19 Shevat, 5758

There's nothing new under the sun (especially chicken feet)

When Ted Roberts heard that JWR's cover story this month was about the Jews and the Chinese, he was inspired to offer a perspective we admit we overlooked. So, dear readers, here's the unique Roberts take on the encounter of two cultures:

Won ton, or kreplach with chopsticks?WELL, WHAT GOES AROUND comes around, they say; and Koheles (Ecclesiastes), one of the less humorous books in our Bible, puts it more sedately: "There's nothing new under the sun." And, as usual, the Book of Books -- the Zayde of all Books -- is correct. I'm sure the Ecclesiastical comment is referring to the barbecued chicken feet I encountered last week in a trendy Chinese eatery.

As I enjoyed a bowl of these babies at a Szechuan eatery, a vision of my old bubbe's face appeared on the table top. The closest she ever came to Chinese food was a glass of hot tea in her kitchen. But she was boiling up chicken feet in her soup years and years ago when the menu in the three or four Chinese restaurants in America could be printed on a fortune cookie note. "Chop Suey," it said. And, on weekends, they added "Chow Mein."

How true it is that today's craze was yesterday's bore. My grandmother served chicken feet in her soup ("Why waste?") and artfully convinced me and my little brother that it -- not the breast -- was the real delicacy. (I think she worked part time at the used car lot.) Then, as I matured into a sophisticated consumer of Chicken Rochenbeau, Chicken Marengo, Chicken Diablo, and Chicken Breast Nintendo, I forgot that chickens had feet. Forty years of chicken breasts prepared with all imaginable sauces obliterated the memory of my grandmother's tasty delicacy. With a mouth full of chicken breasts Cacciatore, who could remember that the creator had fashioned plump pulkis (thighs) and feet to carry those breasts around.

Now, forty years later, Oriental chefs are dishing out marinated, pickled chicken feet. Nothing has changed. It's the same foot. Same color, same shape -- maybe a little fatter thanks to DNA research. And guess why it's on the menu? To reward the Jewish customers who have subsidized the Chinese food business for years.

Think about it. Jews have long used Chinese food to commemorate major events. "It's Joey's bar mitzvah, let's go have Chinese." Or "Well, Bennie's gone, but he didn't suffer, let's stop at the Chinaman." Or "Listen, tomorrow we declare Chapter 11 -- today, let's order in some Chinese."

Picture a meeting in the kitchen of a four-star Chinese restaurant. The owner and the chef sit across a chopping block from each other. The atmosphere is heavy with the smell of ginger, soy sauce, sherry, and scientific inquiry like when Edison turned to his assistant and stated: "You know, it would be great if we had electricity so when you got up at night to relieve yourself you wouldn't fall into the fireplace."

The owner speaks. "We need to have a new fancy, shmancy dish that'll thank our Jewish customers for paying $12.95 for a half ounce of meat and 20 cents worth of Chinese cabbage."

"You mean like when we gave 'em kreplach and called it Won Ton?"

"Yeah, but something new."

"Like General Pao Kae Chung's Mandarin Chicken --- which was a stewed hen in chicken schmaltz with a touch of sesame and soy sauce?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"Like when the Japanese came up with pickled herring and rice and called it sushi?"


The chef looked down to think, then looked up with inspiration flashing in his brown, almond eyes.

"I got it," he calmly declared. "What's the magic word in the Jewish heart -- Bubbe -- that's what. And what did Bubbe do all day besides talk to the kids on the phone?"

"I dunno," said the boss as he picked at an overstuffed egg roll.

"I'll tell you what she did. Just like my mama in Shanghai, she worried about feeding her family with a handful of copper coins. And that meant turning fish heads into ginger spiced delicacies that made think you were sitting at the emperor's banquet table. The Bubbe did the same magic with chicken feet. But soy, sherry, and ginger root weren't in her pantry."

I'm fairly confident that's what happened and that's why really creative, oriental pleasure palaces offer up Chicken Feet Dim Sum.

So I'm one of the few Caucasian customers who orders the chicken feet. The Oriental proprietor and his waiters smile profusely -- delighted to find an eater who appreciates this exotic, Far Eastern cuisine. Bubbe wouldn't believe it.

JWR contributor Ted Roberts is a humorist based in Huntsville, Alabama.


2/3/98: To Bubbe's house we go!

© 1998, Ted Roberts