Chop Suey

December 23, 2012

It seems humanity survived the end of the world that some predicted in connection with the transition from one b’ak’tun to the next in the Mayan calendar. We’ve covered eschatology in the Thornapple blog once before, so there’s no compelling need to mine that thought for another pathetic attempt at humor. I might speculate on the deep metaphysical affinities between the Mayan Long Count and the rediscovery of Mihail Bahktin’s Philosophy of the Act in the 1960s. Bahktin noticed how human beings participate both actively and passively in being, creating the possibility for realization of being through action. The food-ethics moral of the story: You can participate in the realization of the universal by going to the kitchen right now and eating that last Christmas cookie! Of course, the cookie will no longer exist passively as an in-itself, but that was hardly the destiny of any respectable Christmas cookie, anyway. Better that it participate in the active expression of your for-itself, gurgling away down there in your digestive tract.

But of course the only rationale for a tangent like that would be the superficial similarity between the name for the 394 year long b’ak’tun of the Mayans and that of a Russian semiotician who died almost 43 years ago. Careening down the hill at 90 in a black ice whiteout, we’re heading straight into Christmas week. This means that it’s hardly appropriate to be pontificating about serious topics in food ethics or probing the connection between eschatology and ontology. No, Christmas cookies would seem to be about right.

Which brings me to the subject of traditional Christmas foods. And by that, of course, I mean Chinese take-out. I brought this up with Diane last night as we were stopping at the Fine China Restaurant on Waverly Road. She told me I was crazy. She had never heard of the idea that Chinese was a Christmas tradition. I must confess that this was kind of an emergent thought with me, rather than something I could assert with apodictic certainty. I’d been picking up occasional references to eating Chinese food on Christmas day, especially by Jewish comedians. And as we know, Jewish comedians (I know, I know—it’s redundant) are the sages who probe the zeitgeist of the coming b’ak’tun for people living in post-industrial societies. As a professional philosophical pundit, I learned long ago that the best way to appear profound is to reproduce some punchline from Buddy Hackett or Jon Stewart clothed in dialectical mumbo-jumbo.

“Mumbo-jumbo”, by the way, is the Mayan Long Count form for mojo. Many people naturally associate mojo with gumbo, another traditional Christmas dish if you happen to live on the bayou. I’ve got my mojo working this Christmas season, but we’ll be stirring up a vegetarian version of the tortilla soup recipe traditionally made with chicken stock. It’s pretty simple, actually. You’ve got your tomato base vegetable stock, translucent with a nice rich red. Then you drop a few cubes of jack cheese in a bowl with some tortilla chips and a few bite-size chunks of ripe avocado. When you pour the hot broth over it, the cheese melts. You’ve got to eat it before the tortilla chip turns to mush, but why would you want to wait, anyway? It’s the mixture of red and green that hooks this to Christmas. If you don’t get it, I’ve still got my mojo working. It just don’t work on you.

So determined to vindicate myself, I got up and Googled “Chinese food” and “Christmas”. Sho’ nuff, just last Christmas the Huffington Post is declaring that “for many people it’s become a tradition to eat Chinese food on Christmas Day.” The article in question doesn’t go into it, but there is, in fact, a pretty straightforward food ethics reason for this. The “many people” referred to in the story either don’t wish to cook, or (more likely) don’t know how to cook. And Chinese food restaurants are the only restaurants open on Christmas Day, whether for dine-in or take-out. So there you have it: A new post-industrial Christmas tradition in the making!

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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