Chinese New Year on the Banks of the Hudson
The Year of the Pig, How Apt!
Richard J. Garfunkel
February 18, 2007
Here we are still in early 2007 where we have just segued out of the western New Year to the ancient Chinese New Year, 4705, the Year of the Golden Pig, which comes around every 60 years in the twelve year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac. How fitting that we celebrate that inglorious often miss-characterized animal, whose name has been long associated with gluttony, filth and boorishness. Of recent date, we have been bombarded incessantly, in the media with the notoriety of our human version of these ungulates, or split-hoofed swine like, Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richey, and others. So the Year of the Pig goes on spectacularly with “The Donald’s” Miss USA protégé, and the current vile “boars” at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and in Congress on both sides of the aisle.
The ancient Hebrews were probably one of the first peoples to separate themselves from other indigenous folk by creating dietary laws. As one casually learned in the law of Kashrut knows, that one element of traif is not better or worse than another. But somehow, the pig and its by products always seemed to symbolize the most egregious difference between Jew and Gentile. Maybe it was, because pork and its culinary cousins ham and bacon are so popular in the cuisine of so many. How many times in our lexicon to we daily hear “bacon and eggs,” or “ham and cheese?” Of course dietary laws were said to separate the ancient Hebrews from others, but the fact that the swine genus “sus,” as part of the “suidae” family of animals carried trichinosis, cysticerosis, or brucellosis should have been enough. My mother always attributed dietary laws to Jewish concerns over health issues!
Therefore many of us grew up with these restrictions, and more than some of us have gradually drifted away from observing them. Chinese food has always been a favorite staple of modern day Jews, with lobster Cantonese, spare-ribs or egg rolls with shrimp having been often an essential part of their menu.
The Chinese believe that the Year of the Pig will not be very peaceful. The pig is one of twelve real or mythical animals that make up the cycle of the Sino zodiac of the lunar calendar. Accordingly, to the Chinese, people born in the pig years are polite, honest and loyal. One born under the sign of the pig is also considered to be lucky. Both Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton were born under that sign. Of course pig years can be fraught with violence and disruption as they are dominated by fire and water. The Chinese astrological masters feel that people should be forewarned about the potential of natural disaster and even the possibility of epidemics like bird flu. Therefore the advice is to be extra careful with one’s dietary ingestion. Even a Hong Kong soothsayer feels that North Korea will undergo a power struggle and Singapore fortune teller John Lok predicted Iraq will remain being a quagmire and that our fearless leader, the self-proclaimed “Decider,” will have another rotten year.
Traditionally the color red is worn on and during the Chinese New Year to scare away evil spirits and bad fortunes. Good luck is encouraged, by opening doors, windows, switching on lights at night to scare away ghosts and spirits, and candy is eaten to insure a “sweet year.” One also will avoid bad luck by not buying shoes, pants or having a haircut. It is said that on the first day of the New Year one should not sweep the floors or buy any books!
Despite all of these forebodings, we did celebrate another edition of our annual Chinese New Year’s fandango. On a cold clear night here in the lower Hudson River valley, all our guests arrived safely and without much of a problem. We lucked out with the weather. The snow event that paralyzed commerce and social interaction on Wednesday was basically cleared up by Saturday. We also experienced a slight upturn Fahrenheit-wise after days of temperatures in the mid-teens. Already predictions for the coming week talk of single-digit artic blasts, known as Yukon Clippers, searing their way through our region.
But on Saturday we were well prepared for the coming feast. All of our guests were given culinary assignments and came through remarkably. Among the first timers this year was our old buddy Keith Stupell, who came up by train from Babylon on the Hudson and brought dumplings and candy from Chinatown. Keith the proprietor of Carole Stupell’s on 29 East 22nd Street went far beyond the call of duty in his effort. Keith, not only has been carrying on the famous name of his mother, who was one of the most well-known retailers in NYC history, but is a world’s leading philatelic expert, and whose collection of stamps and ephemera is almost unrivaled on our planet. If you had forgotten or had not known Carole Stupell invented the “bridal registry.”
Other first-timers were Dorit and Martin Whiteman from Hollis Hills, New York. The Whitemans, whom we know from Armonk Tennis, made their debut here with egg rolls from Queens and without too much of a problem negotiating the traffic. Dorit is a lecturer and writer whose specialty and expertise is pre-WWII European Jewish issues.
Barbara Monahan is another first timer who lives in White Plains, and had to sadly leave her husband Dan home, who was under the weather. Barbara is the commissioner of Westchester’s Taxi and Limousine Department and brought cookies for dessert. She was able to pick up and drive over our old buddy Robin Lyons. Robin, who brought bowls of cut up fruit, is a veteran of these efforts and is the widow of the late George Lyons, a very dear friend. George was one of the leading experts on baseball in America, and had a remarkable collection of baseball memorabilia, which featured unique and rare game-worn baseball jerseys. He also was the eldest of the four sons of Broadway columnist Leonard Lyons, and the brother of Jeffrey Lyons, the movie critic.
Corinne Levy, one of Linda’s tennis buddies, brought over a tofu dish and her new beau Dr. Bob Stanley, psychiatrist from Irvington. We hoped that we passed Bob’s muster as being almost normal. Debbie Rubin, whom Linda knows from Barnard College alumnae events, brought her good friend Stewart. Debbie’s contribution was delicious buckwheat noodles. Also hailing from Barnard College was Linda’s classmate Abby Kurnit, who just retired from teaching in the chemistry department at Pelham High School, and is currently filling in at Scarsdale High School. Her husband Jeff, is a professor at Queens Community College, and they both are Life Members of the Village Light Opera Company, whose productions we have attended loyalty. Their next one will be Oklahoma, and it is held at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the heart of Manhattan.
Another tennis friend Diona Koerner, a soon to be retired chemistry professor from Manhattanville/Fordham was accompanied by Ron, her lawyer husband. They both brought chicken with vegetables. My old buddy Warren Adis, who is a professor at Iona College, and his wife Mary, an all-around brain and wit, brought noodles, broccoli and chicken. We have traveled often to the New York museums with the Koerners and the Adises. Both Mary and Diona are English gals by birth, and they have similar interests in chemistry and geology. Warren and I met in the third grade in Mrs. Krohn’s class at the William Wilson/Traphagen School in Mount Vernon and have had many adventures that included being at the NCAA hockey finals in Syracuse in 1967 when our two schools, Cornell and Boston University, collided for the title.
Of course, speaking of old classmates, Steve Sinder and I roomed together in Boston University’s Myles Standish Hall. Steve, who is a retired businessman, and his wife Adele, who now hail from White Plains, after decades in Rye Brook, brought fried wontons. Steve and I also had a roommate who played the tuba in the BU band and bass guitar in a group that was an opening act for the Beatles at Shea Stadium and on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Sol and Linda Haber play tennis with Linda and me in our weekend indoor games. They have been active participants in our Saturday night mixed-doubles tennis events that have been played in Hastings and Armonk. Sol, who played basketball at Yeshiva of Brooklyn, long after Warren and I were finished shooting the roundballs in Mount Vernon, hits an excellent serve and a potent forehand. Sol is a dentist who specializes in oral surgery and Linda, who is by profession a CPA and also sells real estate, brought a salad with a ginger dressing.
Last, but not least were Wally and Ronnie Kopelowitz. Wally is an ophthalmologist whom I met many years ago on the tennis courts of County Tennis. Though he now lives in Great Neck with his wife Ronnie, who is a New York City lawyer and judge, Wally still plays tennis in one of my weekend games and punishes his opponents with his wicked baseline slices. They brought kosher chicken and beef dishes. Wally loves to travel, and they both just returned from another great trip back to his former South African homeland.
Our course we supplied the Tsing Tao Chinese beer, Chinese wine, other soft drinks and libations, plus lo mein and dumplings from Stew Leonard’s. Linda made a great Asian cole slaw with cashews, string beans with sesame sauce, asparagus, sweet and sour meatballs and slice marinated steak. I also found some Chinese fortune cookies in the Asian Market in the White Plains Mall on Hamilton Avenue.
Meanwhile the party was called for 7:30 pm and by 8 o’clock everyone had made their arrivals. We served the appetizers downstairs, and Warren and I started on our own bottle of Sake. The party livened up as many people renewed old friendships and acquaintances. My former roommate Steve Sinder and Warren Adis hadn’t seen each other in about 40 years. Diona Koerner and Mary Adis always compare notes about their English roots. Keith Stupell discussed with Steve Sinder what drives the postage stamp market, and Linda and I were making sure everyone had enough appetizers. We all moved upstairs to the dining and living rooms for the main dishes. The group moved slowly around the dining room table testing all the delicacies as they filled up their plates. There was enough of a variety for those who wished to avoid meat, fish, nuts, traif, or veggies.
For the next course we returned downstairs for cookies, ice cream, fruit and tea. Each time our guests changed floors, it enabled us to clean up a bit more. Finally after three hours of culinary debauchery the party ended. I took Keith over to the Tarrytown Station for the 11:10 train to New York, everyone else escaped into the cool clear air and hopefully made it home safely. By the way, “Happy New Year” is conventionally thought to mean in Cantonese, Gung hei fat choi. But that really means, “congratulations and be prosperous.” In reality the Cantonese saying for “Happy New Year” is Sun nin fai lok. So either way, thanks for coming, we had a great time so let’s look forward to a better year than the last!
Comments by great friend Laurence A. Reich on Chinese New Year!
My wife's family in San Francisco celebrated Chinese New Year with great gusto and zeal. No one was more superstitious than Carole, who supervised our immediate family like a drill sergeant, anxious to be certain that no “rules” and ancient “customs” were disturbed. Showering was prohibited, as was any use of profanity or angry tone against another. My aunt, who by death, is now the patriarch, and keeper of family law, always felt that many of these customs were ill founded and not really part of ancient Chinese lore. Of course the color red was always worn and decorative displays were grounded in red. The last Chinese New Year celebration thayt Carole prepared occurred a month before she died and her entire extended family came down from San Francisco to support her desire for a harmonious new year. All the food was often home made rather than store bought so you can imagine the wondrous and delectible panoplay of gratification that was spread along our tables.
None of the pictures featured the token Chinese guest, perhaps Carole was there in spirit?
Dr. Laurence Reich