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Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2004 / 3 Adar, 5764

Lenore Skenazy

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Let's hear it for Chinese food! | NEW YORK — Let's hear it for Chinese food!

After all, that's what Mulberry Street's Museum of the Chinese in the Americas is doing all this year - celebrating the most popular cuisine in the Skenazy household.

Coincidentally, it also happens to be the most popular cuisine in the world, consumed by 30 percent of humanity, according to Jacqueline Newman, editor of the Chinese food magazine Flavor and Fortune. The most popular Chinese-American dish, she adds, is beef with broccoli. Yum. Sesame chicken is No. 2. Excuse me while I make a quick call.

"... and No. 17, right? With the soup."

Sorry. Back to the story.

Right now the museum is chock-full of artifacts from General Lee's, a Chinese restaurant that had a hundred-year run in Los Angeles, catering to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand.

But as important as Chinese food is to Californians, to New Yorkers it is beyond important. It is the fuel that greases - as it were - our whole lifestyle. Would we really be a world power if we couldn't leave all the shopping, cooking and bike-careening to the local Chinese restaurant? And still get change from our $20?

No way. Which is why soon the museum will pay homage to Chinese food closer to home, by featuring one New Yorker's collection of 10,000 Chinese menus.

The only difference between archivist Harley Spiller and the rest of us is that he keeps his stack of menus under his bed, while we generally keep them closer to the phone. Still, Spiller came upon his passion the same way most of us did:

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"I moved to New York in 1981, and I was alone in my apartment," he says. "I heard a noise at the door, and I was scared." Tiptoeing over, he found a Chinese menu.

"It had squid on it, and I thought squid was only for science experiments!" recalls the Buffalo native. Equally intrigued by typos like "shrimp cooked in special chef" and "stuffed stuff," he started scouting out more.

Now his collection includes one menu from an 1879 banquet and a 1916 Chinatown menu that looks, he says, "the same as today, except for the prices." These go on exhibit this summer.

Salivating - er, celebrating - the humble Chinese eatery may seem rather lowbrow for a highbrow institution. But not when you start to think about what those eateries meant to Chinese immigrants.

"Because the Chinese restaurant is ubiquitous," says museum spokesman William Dao, most Chinese-Americans are only one or two degrees away from the restaurant biz. And it was this business, along with laundering, that allowed Chinese immigrants to thrive here, despite language barriers and rampant discrimination.

At the same time, the Chinese restaurant also became the first place many Westerners encountered - and came to love - anything Chinese.

So while a bowl of wonton soup may not entirely bridge the culture gap, it's a start. And, this being New York, it's probably on the way.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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