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 in Manhattan, 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 ubiquitous 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 penicillin – 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 sink full 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 options — became much more varied. You can now order in pizza and pasta, Indian food, Japanese, Mexican, burgers, Vietnamese, and some great stuff direct from Chinatown.
In my boyfriend BG’s working class Bronx ‘hood, the Chinese “restaurants” (aka tiny takeout storefronts) 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 sophisticated meant that BG’s neighborhood was becoming a bit more classy as well. Could luxury co-op living and a Starbucks on every corner be far behind?
Well, not exactly. 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 restaurant 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.