New Yorkers v. Chinese Takeout Containers
Eating from the paper carton? Only in the movies
Hollywood is a dream factory. We know that. It’s a place where fantasies are spun from misplaced desires and the almighty profit motive. Do I sound angry? I am, because there’s one lie that’s been gnawing at me for years. It’s the myth that Chinese food should be — and is, mostly by New Yorkers, during intimate moments — eaten out of the paper delivery carton.
As a native New Yorker who has experienced many intimate moments and eaten Chinese delivery countless times since the early 1980s, I can tell you: I have never eaten out of the carton. Nor have I ever been with anyone who did. It’s a fabrication that doesn’t make any sense. But I’ll get to that later. First, I want to lay blame.
The source of this insidious misinformation campaign, I believe, is none other than Woody Allen. In one of the greatest movies of all time, 1979’s Manhattan, his character, Isaac, who has an affair with a 17-year-old student, played by Mariel Hemingway, does the deed. The film features them in a delightful, no doubt post-coital moment in bed, joyfully eating Chinese food out of their respective cartons with forks. They watch TV, they laugh, they eat, they share a perfect bourgeois intimacy and joy that seems only possible by the accompaniment of sex, witty repartee and Chinese food in a carton.
Since then, Hollywood has relied on this trope as a constant crutch, as familiar now as 5-minute car chases and gay neighbors with perfect relationship advice. We saw it in The Lost Boys, wherein Keifer Sutherland ate Lo Mein, and on Sex in the City, where Mr. Big always relished the good things in life. I’ve seen it so many times that the specifics are a blur, but just think Seinfeld, Rush Hour or any number of movie scenes involving Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise.
I mean, I’ll admit to once trying to eat some cold noodles with sesame sauce out of the container, just to see if I could learn from the world of fiction. But it was just that — an exercise in life imitating fakery. I didn’t like it.
For me, Chinese food is a balletic interplay between rice and dish. I want to have it all on the plate, working my way from vegetable to rice to tofu and back to rice and over to shrimp. Also, by letting the food sit in the container, it is going to get inordinately overcooked and mushy. (I say inordinately, because I know delivery food is expected to come with some of that patina.) And, of course, if you’re eating with someone else, then it’s only civilized to pass the food around in the boxes, and to then put it on your plate.
An old Chowhound discussion corroborates my belief that this phenomenon is indeed a myth, although there do appear to be a few practitioners of the eating-out-of-carton method. First off, I doubt they’re native New Yorkers. And, anyway, when I try to imagine actual, real people out there who don’t share my social or hygienic or culinary imperatives, and who plop on their couch and shovel right into the container, they still seem fictional to me. I’d sooner believe that they can rappel down a 50-foot wall using a bed sheet or that they can have sex in a bathroom stall without pulling a muscle.
Woody, I’m calling you out: You’re responsible for a terrible lie. And, anyway, you should know that these days, Chinese food, except for rice, is mostly delivered in plastic containers. But, I get it, where’s the romance in that?