Tasting the Conspiracy, item L1: Sweet and Sour Chicken

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Huh, so I guess I usually order from way down the specials list. I am starting off with something I never have but which is not exactly an unknown quantity, because sweet and sour chicken was, as it turns out, my ex’s favorite dish to get at Chinese takeouts, which, in retrospect, maybe should have been some sort of warning sign. Be that as it may, I’ll try to view this one not through any sort of emotional lens. It would be terrible to take a bite of fast-food Chinese and discover hours later that, à la recherche du temps perdu, I’ve written a novelistic recapitulation of the last four years. That would be unpleasant for everyone involved, I suppose.

So, as mentioned, I’ve eaten this particular instantiation of this dish before (mostly by poaching it off Shannon’s plate or nabbing leftovers from the fridge). But I have a structure in mind, and I’ll stick to it.

Sweet and Sour Chicken

The Sweet and Sour Chicken lunch special (menu item L1) from Double Dragon

What exactly is this dish? Little bits of white-meat chicken are thickly breaded, deep fried, and served with a sauce which is very sweet, fruity (usually with pineapple), and acid (generally with vinegar). In takeouts the sauce comes in a separate container, and some places (but not takeouts, as a rule) the monotony of the chicken is broken up with some sort of fruit or vegetable garnish; usually pineapple, but other accents are also possible.

How authentically Chinese is it? Pretty much not at all. To the extent it derives from any Chinese culture, the sauce is vaguely reminiscent of some traditional plum sauces, but a lot less complex. Deep-frying thickly battered things is not really a traditional Chinese approach to meat, though; they’ll deep-fry, but anything with as much bread as this on the outside would be a dumpling or a bun.

Is it any good? The breading is really very heavy; around small chunks of chicken, you’re talking about a pretty poor balance of protein to starch in these guys. To its credit, the breading stands up well to being covered in sauce, and they keep a solid crunch even as they cool. The sauce itself is kinda sweeter than a meal feels like it should be, and is generally pretty unsubtle. It would have been a lot more tolerable with some sort of textural/flavor contrast element in the form of pineapple or some sort of vegetable garnish.

How does it complement the rice? Not real well. There’s plenty of sauce, but the dish kind of has nothing going on flavorwise except the sauce (no veggies, bland meat), so that’s really all you taste on the entree side of the plate. The sauce is so assertive and single-note that, if I’m going through rice in tandem with a protein already covered in this sauce, I wouldn’t want to put this sauce on the rice too, unless it was distressingly dry and I had no soy sauce.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L0: Introduction

It’s been a long time since I posted about anything except the Bible, hasn’t it? Time to change that up with another series about food. This one’s been kicking around my head for a while, and it’s a silly idea, but let’s roll with it.

Theres a phenomenon in Louisville (AFAICT, pretty much localized here although I’m sure other cities have their own particular variants of it) where the overwhelming majority of Chinese-American takeouts have near-identical menus. OK, the fact that many takeouts have the same stuff on their menu isn’t surprising at all, really, but a bunch of them have the exact same layout, and the exact same items, in the exact same order. It’s a conspiracy! The Menu Conspiracy! Actually, it’s more likely a shared business plan which comes more or less prefab and all you do is insert your own business name on the top and fire up the wok burners. I figured it was, like, some sort of Sysco thing, but the fact that it’s city-specific leans towards these things being put together by local business groups. The Search for General Tso kind of goes into this, that there tend to be Chinese restaurant-syndicates in cities which plan out a healthy geographic dispersal of takeouts and set them all up with the exact same menu.

Be that as it may, not every Chinese-American takeout in Louisville is a conspirator. Most but not all of the many restaurants named “Double Dragon” are in on the Conspiracy. So is China One in Schnitzelburg (but not China 1 in Lyndon) and a Taste of China in Old Louisville. Great Wall in Clifton has what appears to be a standard Conspiracy menu but they’ve reordered my go-to verification point, the lunch specials. You get the idea — it’s formulaic enough to be instantly recognizable.

The Conspiracy restaurants tend to be quite similar (unsurprisingly, since I imagine not only their menu but also their recipes and ingredients are centrally distributed), but they do vary a bit. It occurred to me, though, that I’d only dipped into a small part of their menu. And since their menu is exactly the same everywhere, I can get a line on what several different Chinese takeouts’ specific dishes are like without having to visit them all.

So that’s where this project started, with an ambition to try a full cross-section of the Conspiracy menu, from a single standardized location, presumably adjustable up and down in various qualities but largly unchanged anywhere else you might go in Louisville. I’m starting with the lunch specials, because I have a horrible weakness for the lunch specials. They’re a great way to get a lot of food in your belly for cheap. And they’re where I first noticed the conspiracy, because they’re the page of the menu I always looked at most closely.

My choice of location is Double Dragon in Germantown Square (I have no idea why Louisville has so many Double Dragons; other than all being Chinese and many of them having the same menu, they appear to be completely unrelated), because it is both extremely convenient to me and actually quite good within the limits of the form. China One is even closer to me, but (with one notable exception which I will get to in time) I have never enjoyed their food quite as much as Double Dragon’s.

Since I’ll be having a bunch of lunch specials, it’s worth talking about what the lunch special entails. It usually runs about $5.50 at Double Dragon; that tends to have possible variation of about $0.50 upwards or $1.00 downwards at other places, possibly with variation by individual dish, and it consists of a farly generous serving of some entree with fried rice and an egg roll. Some places swap the egg roll out for a soda or a crab rangoon, but the fried rice is sacred and is served in the same box as the entree. This is significant because, in judging these meals, one of my major criteria is how well the sauce complements the rice.

So, the project is already underway, to be honest, and I have a few takeout lunches already under my belt, but the first actual review can wait a little while.

Edited to add: the list in progress, from worst to best, with grades:

  • L1: Sweet and Sour Chicken: If you want nuggets, go to McDonalds. They even have sweet-and-sour sauce. F
  • L4: Sweet and Sour Pork: At least they’ve got texture, but, still, not terrifically imaginative. D–
  • L10: Chicken Chow Mein: Around here, “chow mein” is basically chop suey. Who thought big ol’ hunks of cabbage made a good stirfry? Shredded cabbage is fine, but, please, no enormous leaves. That’s just bad, and your bland white sauce doesn’t help. D
  • L10: Shrimp Chow Mein: Shrimp is tastier than chicken, to my mind. Not enough tastier than chicken to actually make much of a difference, though. D
  • L9: Moo Goo Gai Pan: Button mushrooms! And bland sauce! Two of my least favorite things! At least the chicken was OK, and snow peas are always welcome. D
  • L3: Beef with Broccoli Blandly meeting minimum levels of stereotypical Chineseness with a generic brown sauce, protein, and vegetable. C–
  • L2: Shrimp with Lobster Sauce: Rescued from the doldrums of flavorlessness mostly by the voluminousness of the sauce which provides a pleasant accessory to rice. C–
  • L5: Chicken with Mixed Vegetable: A more adventurous mix of veggies in the brown sauce raises this a cut above a more pedestrian stir-fry. C
  • L6: Pepper Steak with Onion: Somewhat monotonous in terms of textural elements, but the onion adds a flavor note which brings the brown sauce into a better place. C
  • L8: Shrimp with Mixed Vegetable: Are the different veggies from L5 because it’s a different day, or because they choose differently if the protein is different? Well, either way, this is cut above the chicken, to my mind. C+
  • L8: Mixed Vegetables: Don’t be fooled! This has protein! It’s tofu, and it’s got that ligh sear that does good things to tofu’s texture. Otherwise it’s an awful lot like L8 or L5. C+
  • L7: Chicken with Garlic Sauce: A pleasing variety of vegetables and a livelier take on the traditional brown sauce raises this item to stand at the top of the crowd of straightforward, basic stir-fries in simple sauces. B–

Wibble Wednesday: (Isaiah 1)

Finally done with Kings! The second section of the Jewish bible, the נביאים. means “prophets”, but we’ve seen precious few actual prophets thus far. But now we’re into some properly prophetical sections after getting through the historical parts.

Short snarky summary: Are you sick of hearing about how Israel deserves its shitty fate because of all its idol-worshipping ways? Me too. I don’t care much about idol-worship. Israel deserves its shitty fate because of all its social injustice.

I’ve gone on at some length about Deuteronomists and how the historical sections of the Bible thus far have been a pretty much explicit propaganda piece for their beliefs, so it’s worth noting that the Book of Isaiah is generally not regarded as a Deuteronomist document. In fact, it’s not entirely clear who did write (or edit) the text of Isaiah, although variation in styles have led scholars to conjecture that there are three texts of different authorship spliced together to form the whole. It’s entirely possible that the historical Isaiah might have written one of them, although even the existence of a historical Isaiah is a bit murky: we have references to him back in 2 Kings, where on the eve of the Assyrian invasion of Judah he prophesied divine salvation to Hezekiah, but there are no other references to him in any other contemporary texts. But even that doesn’t say anything, because he’s not a significant enough figure to appear in, say, an Assyrian record (unlike Hezekiah, who appears extensively in both Assyrian and Hebrew documents of his era).

So, anyways, whether or not Isaiah wrote the book of Isaiah, or even existed, the book’s been pretty profoundly influential on both Jewish and Christian thought, because it’s an explicitly messianic work, and messianism was not a thread which came out at all in either the Torah or the Deuteronomical works.

Anyways, reading the first several verses of Isaiah, one could be fooled into believing it’s much of a piece with the Deuteronomist moaning about the horrible wayward iniquity of the children of Israel in turning towards other gods. It certainly starts in a very similar vein, condemning the people of Judah for their as-yet-unspecific iniquity and evil, and their abandonment of God’s precepts.

Of course, an odd sidenote to this is that Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of King Uzziah (also called Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekaih. During three of these four reigns, in the Deuteronomist worldview, Judah was actually a very devout and pious place (Ahaz’s Judah being the exception)! There wasn’t, in a Deuteronoomist morality, much for Isaiah to rail against.

But the text takes an interesting right turn as it prophesies misfortune and destruction, and namedrops specifically Sodom and Gomorrah as archetypes of Jerusalem’s sin. This is pretty significant, since although more recent views associate Sodom with sexual impropriety (in particula homosexuality), Biblical texts typically use Sodom as a symbol specifically of inhospitability and injustice. This reading is pretty much explicitly confirmed later in the chapter, but it would be easy for a modern reader to get on completely the wrong track with these early allusions.

Before we get into the meat of what Judah has done wrong, though, Isaiah segues into what will not earn Israel redemption: namely, ceremonial obedience. He runs off a list of festivals and sacrifices which don’t impress God, and adds that prayer is completely pointless. This is pretty refreshing stuff after the ceremony-obsessed complaints of the Deuteronomists! Particularly when Isaiah comes to the real reason he thinks God has forsaken Israel: because they no longer act with justice or aid the oppressed. That there’s a timeless message and a reassuring one for a secularist like me who kind of rolls his eyes at all this “idolatry is the biggest sin ever” nonsense I’ve seen hitherto.

Isaiah makes it clear that social justice, practiced forthrightly, does properly atone for their previous sins, and that their fortunes can mend if they behave themselves. But he also makes it clear that he thinks where Israel is, moralitywise, is unacceptable at present, with some colorfoul poetry about the city’s harlotry — and for once this isn’t either a literal sexual sin, or a metaphor for flirtation with foreign gods, but rather a condemnation of material greed. “Widows and orphans” get another shoutout at this point as those against whom the society of Judah has sinned.

The final several verses turn from social criticism to vaguely-messianic prediction of a golden age. Unlike many visions of prosperity, the view put forth here is not one of plenty so much as one in which wealth becomes meaningless. There’s a lot of discussion of possessions being worthless liabilities, with the acquisitive shamed by the land they acquired and houses they build, and with their stored wealth transforming into slag metal.

It’s a more socialist vision than I expected. It not only puts forward injustice against the poor as a sin but lays it immediately at the door of those who possess wealth, and promises that in its utopian worldview wealth will not simply be redistributed, but erased as a notion entirely.

So, if it’s not entirely clear yet, what we see here is a very different notion of what “goodness” is, and a very different notion of how Judah will be repaid for their devotion, than had really appeared in any of the previous texts of the Bible.

Wibble Wednesday: Into the Great Wide Open (2 Kings 23–25)

Oof. Took some time off there for various family activities/beginning-of-year whatnots/psychological breakdowns and the like. Things are still crazy and there’s tons of other stuff I should be doing, but, eh, this is kind of comforting.

Short snarky summary: Judah finally gets what’s coming to them. Also, Samaritans are WRONG WRONG WRONG because the king says so and so does God.

So, previously we had a premonition of doom, with a prophesy (delivered by one of the few women to occupy a narrative role) that Judah would be laid waste and exiled, but not until after King Josiah’s death. Part of the background for this upcoming disaster is the discovery of a previously unknown Torah scroll with teachings contrary to their established pracices. Chapter 23 continues to draw out this thread. I’m relaitively certain that this whole “new, different Torah scroll” plotline is meant as an anti-Samaritan dig (and perhaps a sideswipe at other sects who followed a non-Deuterocanonical approach to the Law). Remember, the Deuteronomists are basically establishing their own canon, and trying very hard to make it seem divinely mandated. Later mainstream Judaic theology will come up with some convoluted workaround suggesting that the entire Jewish canon is actually in the “Oral Law”, which was also handed down on Sinai and includes the Midrash and the Talmud. Note that these latter two texts themselves refer extensively to the non-Torah portions of the Tanakh, so the long con here is basically to place books like 2 Kings on a par of divine authorship with the Torah.

Historically, this is obvious bunk. We know when the Deuteronomical texts were written, and they’re not mid-Bronze-Age. We know who wrote the Talmud, and it’s not God. The idea that these were just later verbatim recordings of an established text from Sinai is so ridiculous it’s hard to imagine that it forms a mainstream Jewish principle, but so it does. And we may be seeing the primordial version of that principle here, with an ancient hitherto unknown text being brought up as a major modification to the extant Torah.

So Chapter 23 starts with a ceremony of the king sanctifying and confirming the new text before the people; this serves to simultaneously demonstrate Josiah’s goodness (in accepting and confirming the manuscript), and confirm the manuscript’s truth (through the royal mandate). It’s elegantly circular. Next up Josiah orders the destruction of cult objects: the posts of Asherah, the idols of Baal, and the chambers of the male prostitutes (who may have been cult prostitutes; we’ve seen these guys before, and every reference to them has been enigmatic but disapproving). My memory was hazy, and I could have sworn all these things had been done before, and they were, by Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah! But the two intervening generations had re-established the practices, which is why we get the purges all over again. He also destroyed the shrine-worship, another familiar theme: these shrines to Jehovah were not idolatrous, but they were ouside of the established, centralized temple practice, and were thus another sore point for the Deuteronomists, who favored a strong cetralized priesthood. The taxt as a whole engages in mind-numbing detail about exactly which worship-objects Josiah ordered destroyed, and the most significant thing is that apparently a lot of them were part of either the Temple grounds or the royal palace. He also digs up and defiles graves on the hill near Jeroboam’s altar in Bethel, which is a bit confusing, although it allws a callback to an incident in 1 Kings 13 when a prophet came to Bethel, prophesied against Jereboam and specifically predicted the rise of Josiah, and, due to a complicated sin involving acceptance of hospitality, was then slain by a lion and buried by a different prophet (the one who offered him the hospitality; it’s a very weird story). Both prophets in question is apparently among the bones on Bethel, and Josiah, informed by the locals that this grave was of the one who predicted his own rise, leaves both sets of bones undisturbed.

Josiah also murders all the cult priests of Samaria, which is a pretty obvious reference to Samaritanism, and which, confusingly enough, doesn’t seem to be in his territory—Samaria is the old capital of Israel, not Judah, and Israel is an Assyrian vassal state at this point. That part doesn’t make a lot of sense, because Samaria isn’t Josiah’s to do with as he likes. He then celebrates Passover, and the text goes to great pains to specify that in all of Israel and Judah’s monarchical history, the Passover sacrifice had never been properly observed (no, not even by King David!) until that day and that for that Josiah was truly great. But even so, God was still planning to doom Jerusalem, not because anyone there at that time had sinned, but because Josiah’s father and grandfather were so very horrible.

Josiah’s story cuts off abruptly with an invasion by Egypt. Josiah himself is killed in battle, and his son Jehoahaz only reigned three months before being imprisoned and deported by Egypt’s Pharaoh, who installs Jehoahaz’s son Eliakim on the throne instead (changing his name to Jehoiakim, for reasons which are obscure) and demanding tribute. This is basically the end of Judah’s existence as an independent state. Jehoiakim is poorly thought of by the authors for two reasons: first, he “does what is displeasing to God”, which is presumably idolatry because the Deuteronomists don’t have a really varied appetite for sin, and second, he taxes the hell out of the people to afford the tremendous tribute burden.

The best way to break free of a big tyrannical state, Jehoiakim reasoned, is to befriend a bigger tyrannical state, and at that period of history that state was Babylon. Jehoiakim swears fealty to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (another act which surely annoyed God, but, hey, if he didn’t want his monarchs subordinating themselves to foreign potentates, maybe he shouldn’t let his nation get conquered all the time). We’re told this is an effective deterrent against the Egyptians, but eventually Jehoiakim chafes against this vassalage of his own choosing and rebels, predictably earning Babylon’s ire and attention.

However, Jehoiakim doesn’t live to see the damaging effects of his rebellion. His son Jehoiachin takes the crown, and holds it for a mere three months before Babylon sweeps down in its might and besieges Jerusalem. Jerusalem surrenders and the Temple and palace are completely looted, while all of the skilled laborers in Judah are exiled to work in Babylon. Jehoiachinhimself is placed under arrest, with his family, and the regency is bestowed upon his uncle, whose name is changed (it must be some sort of near-East tradition, when installing a puppet king, to change their name) to Zedekiah. All of this happens, we are told, on accout of Manasseh’s sin “filling Jerusalem with the blood of the innocent, and God would not forgive”. Given what the toll of war and deportation must have been, there’s a pretty horrific irony and hypocrisy in this justification.

But even crushing the resistence, scattering the skilled worker, and installing a puppet king doesn’t keep Judah at bay, and after nine years, Zedekiah rebels and the Babylons come tramping back to besiege Jerusalem again, blockading the city for over a year while the citizens starve. Before they can all die of famine, the babylonians breach the walls to put them out of their misery. Zedekiah’s family is executed, Zedekiah himself is blinded, and the city, already presumably a bit sparse from the last looting, is burned to the ground. Everything which wasn’t deemed valuable enough to loot on the last go-round is uprooted and carried off, which includes most of the bronze temple implements. The entire royal entourage of priests and attendants is killed, and all but a small number of Judahites are exiled. The few remnants are apparently left under a Judean governor, against whom they rebel and then flee to Egypt.

So at this point, Judah is depopulated, Jerusalem razed, and the people scattered to Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. This is the beginning of the mythohistorical period of exile, when no Judean state exists. This state of affairs will continue (with Judean independence flickering in and out at various points between empries) for the rest of the text. Henceforth the Biblical narrative probably has a more accurate view of Judah’s place in the world: in the previous chapters, Judah (and Israel) came across as significant, major forces in the Near East, which pretty much no archaeological evidence confirms. But from the end of this book forwards, the Israelite people are presented as subjects of large consequential empires, which historically they actually were.

The book closes out with one minor piece of good news. A new Babylonian king, with the false-cognate name of Evil-merodach, sets Jehoiachin (the king imprisoned and replaced with his uncle Zedekiah) free and shows him favor and elevation in court. That’s a happy ending, I guess.Judah finally gets what’s coming to them. Also, Samaritans are WRONG WRONG WRONG because the king says so and so does God.