Escaping the Conspiracy, item L12 (or L2a): Shrimp Chow Mein

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

Still working through backlog, but this one’s particularly a change of pace in some ways. See, I couldn’t stand the idea of having what promised to be a dish substantively equivalent to one I’d just had in the form of item L11 (chicken chow mein) and coming away from the experience no wiser than before, so I figured I might take this opportunity o tweak a different variable—even though it was the same menu item, I’d go to a different Conspiracy front to see if it was realized differently in different places. With that thought in mind, I went to China One. China One is my actual local takeout; Double Dragon was the nearest of the well-beloved ones when I first moved here; Great Wok, on Preston Highway, is much closer (literally less than a quarter mile from my house) but had a lower reputation than Double Dragon and wasn’t in the Conspiracy, so it never really became a regular haunt of mine. At that point China One came into the picture, and they were even closer than Great Wok and seemed to do a somewhat better job, although after a few mediocrities there I entered into a pattern: China One if I’m in a hurry or I want their fantastic orange chicken, which isn’t a lunch-combo item at most Conspiracy fronts; Double Dragon for pretty much anything else. So I haven’t actually looked at the menu in China One closely for years.

This visit gave me two valuable pieces of news: first, China One has left the conspiracy, at least to some extent! They have their own menu now, one in which chow mein, with any of four different proteins, is item L1 or L2. One with Mongolian Beef and Coconut Shrimp on the lunch menu. They always had Orange Chicken, making them a little unusual, but they’ve completely revamped and seem to really be going their own way. The other notable piece of news is that China One has really gotten quite good (either that or Double Dragon got subtly worse while I wasn’t looking). Even their eggrolls are better, which flummoxes me because I’m quite positive they come frozen off the back of the same Sysco truck. And yet China One’s are so much more pleasant, with a lighter filling, a more delicate crunch, and detectable morsels of ground meat. Maybe Sysco has multiple grades of eggrolls, and DD is ordering the budget version and C1 the premium. Or maybe DD only does vegetarian rolls while C1 gets meaty ones and the nonvegetarian rolls are just better crafted. And maybe they have different egg-roll-frying practices. Either way, they’re different, and China One is better.

The main course also varies, but I’ll get to that below.

Shrimp Chow Mein

Astute observers might notice the wood-grain of a different table than usual.

What exactly is this dish? “Chow mein” is a peculiarly variable term in American cuisine, describing a number of different dishes, most of which are preparation-style and noodle-choice variations on a stir-fried formula akin to a crispier version of lo mein. In several parts of the Midwest, however, “chow mein” is basically what is elsewhere called “chop suey” served with the crispy noodles which are a typical accompaniment to soup. This particular dish appears to be sliced chicken and veggies, particularly large pieces of cabbage, in a white sauce.

How authentically Chinese is it? In this particular incarnation? Not very. Not very Chinese at all. It might be the least authentically Chinese thing you can get at your average Chinese-American restaurant. The name 炒面 is authentically Chinese, apparently from the Taishanese dialect, and some dishes which share this name might have more authentically Chinese roots, but I’m answering the question for this specific variant.

Is it any good? Like its brother at Double Dragon, not very. Even here, it’s ridiculously bland, although it seems like China One maybe uses a more onion-intensive (or garlicky?) sauce which makes it a mite more worthwhile, and the big chunks-o-cabbage are texturally a bit overwhelming. Shrimp feels like it plays a bit better with the dish overall, although still not well enough to actually ennoble it; basically you have to close your eyes and think of Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, and by the time you’re doing that, you might as well have ordered good old L2 to begin with. The soup noodles are frankly a bit confusing: am I meant to put them in the sauce, where they lose a bit of their crunch, not unlike one does with soup? They certainly aren’ adding a lot to this particular dish, and given that “crispy noodles” are the namesake feature of chow mein, I’d expect them to play a more vital role than this sad little packet of soup noodles does.

How does it complement the rice? Well enough; the sauce is plentiful, thick, and velvety, even if it is bland.

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Wibble Wednesday: All Politics is Local (Isaiah 10)

Missed two weeks. This chapter’s longish, so it’s hard to really get down to business on it.

Short snarky summary: Assyria is coming to getcha. They’ll get theirs in the end, but for now, the things they are doing are totally sanctioned by God. That’ll teach you to, uh, do all the bad stuff you do.

I’m not sure exactly how Biblical chapter and verse numbering came about, because there’s a pretty good reason to reckon that the first four verses of this chapter actually belong in Chapter 9. Remember that Chapter 9 was a harangue against the iniquities of Israel, with stanzas separated by the chorus “Yet His anger has not turned back, and His arm is outstretched still”. Well, the first four verses of this chapter are a continuation of that exact structure, ending with the aforementioned chorus, and focusing in the stanza on my favorite bit of Isaiah, the calling out of social injustice. The villains are drawn in the usual light: schemers who use “evil writs” and “iniquitous documents” to rob the poor, the widows, and the orphans. However, in this iteration of the social justice fight there’s an eschatological or at least apocalyptical bent: not only are these men evil, but all their ill-gotten gains cannot protect them in the day of reckoning, when they’ll be, as it were, first up against the wall when the revolution comes.

But that’s not really what this chapter is about. The rest of the chapter is a quite explicit discussion of local geopolitics, particularly as regards Assyria. This is, in some ways, the aspect of Isaiah which makes it hard to take seriously as messianic, far-future prophecy. Just as, say, the Revelation of St. John is obviously a veiled and metaphorical reference to the contemporaneous political environment (specifically: Rome and imperial excess), Isaiah frequently slips into a mode which is emphatically not a story of some far-off apocalypse, or even the universal story of injustice, but of the present and immediate issues of Assyrian conquest. And unlike the Revelation, Isaiah is not even remotely coy about its references. In this chapter, Assyria is mentioned by name as God’s weapon against an “ungodly nation”. The charitable read (for Isaiah’s Judahite audience) is that this nation is Israel, as mentioned in the last chapter; an uncharitable read would ascribe the vices of ungodly avarice, and the Assyrian response thereto, to Judah itself. The ambiguity drives a bit of the tension for the rest of the chapter, where Isaiah lays out a specific prophecy of how Assyria will end up interacting with Judah, eventually answering the question: will Assyria destroy Judah? (Spoiler alert: no.)

The motivation of Assyria is gone into a bit, and there’s a vivid image of the nation slipping, as it were, out of God’s control. This may not be the intent of the text, but it’s a read that the nation God empowered to fulfill his wrath has grown too great for safety and is running wild, so puffed up by their victories that they don’t bother to see which nations God has protected and which he hasn’t. This is a bit peculiar in its framing, though: the foe is depicted as stating confidently that Calno, Hamath, and Samaria will be as easy to conquer as Carchemish, Arpad, and Damascus. The weird part is the mix of nations here: four of those cities are Hittite; Damascus is Aramean, and Samaria, as we know is Israelite (Samaria is used elsewhere as a metonym for Israel, especially for Israel’s non-Jerusalemite religious tradition). I’m no sure what the comparison is supposed to be. From a grace-of-God perspective five of these cities are identical in being completely forsaken, and the sixth is one which was apparently the whole point of dispatching Assyria as a mad dog in the first place. God approves of Assyrian conquest of all these places, surely! But in the next verse the conqueror is attributed the prideful boat that, having subdued all these great places, he will next take on Samaria and Jerusalem. So, uh, in case you didn’t notice, Samaria appears twice here, and any way you try to differentiate the worthy from the unworthy (operaing under the assumption that Jerusalem is in the “good” box) you either end up putting Samaria into both categories, or a completely foreign city (Calno and Hamath, or Damascus) in with the worthy.

So the question of whether Assyria will conquer Jerusalem remains up in the air (along with, to some extent, the question as to whether Jerusalem deserves that fate). Verse 12 muddies that issue, since it asserts that God will punish Assyria after he has “carried out all his purpose on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem”, which sure sounds like a reckonging coming to Judah! But it isn’t—remember back in II Kings 19, when Sennacharib besieged Jerusalem and then his entire army was felled by the Angel of Death (a plague, or something?). That’s a certain scourge on Judah, perhaps, but pretty limited. Unmistakably the punishment for Assyria alluded to here are the events of II Kings 19 (which, in the chronology of the work, are presumably still in the future when this prophecy was written, although inasmuch as everything here was at least tweaked by later editors, the prophecy isn’t much of a feat of prognosication). We get a second view into the prideful mind of the Assyrian king: previously glorying in his military might, we next see a boastful claim that all of this is a result of personal virtue: that he, and he alone, has built an empire, destroying nations and pillaging their wealth. My translation even has italics on the word “I” in his soliloquy, which I assume corresponds to some grammatical or semantic element emphasis in the original. So, the message of this section is that the king of Assyria’s great sin is his pride, and his belief that his accomplishments are his own doing, rather than his service as a tool to God. Verse 15 pretty much explicily refutes this viewpoint, putting the notion fo the king as a tool forwards pretty explicitly, metaphorically asking if an ax, or a saw, or a staff would praise its own skill rather than that of the wielder.

The next stanza has a peculiarly ambiguous pronoun referent, talking about the destruction and reduction of some entity, which will suffer “a wasting away in its fatness”, and a burning “destroying frame and flesh… like a sick man who pines away”. The footnote gloss suggests that the subject of this phrase is Israel, but in context it makes a hell of a lot more sense for it to be in reference to Assyria. Consider: the last several verses were all about the improper pride of Assyria, with heavy allusion to its being brought down low. And, indeed, Assyria kind of falls to pieces gradually, starting with the failure of the siege at Jerusalem, not unlike the wasting-away imagery used here (which is kind of inappropriate for Israel, which is in the short term conquered and exiled).

This (apparently disfavored) interpretation also works harmoniously with the next section, wherein it is asserted that in that time (i.e. when Assyria, or possibly Israel, has succumbed to its wasting away), Israel will cease to rely on its abuser (Assyria) and will come to rely on God instead. This is actually a bit confusing, because Israel never relied on Assyria; Judah, under King Ahaz, brokered a peace with Assyria against their common foe of Israel (see 2 Kings 16 for the gory details). SO the idea of “Israel and the House of Jacob” relying on Assyria is kind of weird. Judah might work, because Judah did in fact rely on Assyria, only to a generation laer be attacked (albeit unsuccessfully) by them, but then we have a problem with the “in that day” suggestion that after escaping the bonds of their oppressor, only a small portion of the House of Jacob will remain. After all, Sennacharib’s siege on Jerusalem didn’t depopulate Judah! And Israel was already decimated and exiled by then. So I find the question of just who is oppressing who, and when hey are supposed to get their comeuppance, awfully vague in this section. We could use fewer pronouns here, I guess I’m saying.

But, anyways, God is carrying out a “decree of destruction upon all the land”, but then, we’re immediately reassured, that those who live in Zion (Judahites) need not fear Assyria, who will soon be used up and themselves the targets of God’s wrath, like previous oppressors of the Hebrews. Specifically, the king of Assyria will be ppunished just like the Egyptians (in Exodus, of course) or the Midianites at the Rock of Oreb (that’s a reference to the Judge Gideon, who killed the Midianite general Oreb at the rock named after him).

What follows is essentially a poetic retelling of the siege of Jerusalem. The preface is that on the day of victory Assyria’s yoke will fall from Judah’s neck “because of [Judah’s] fatness”, which I can’t quite interpret, because it’s not Judahite prosperity so much as divine fate that drives back the Assyrians. The following text includes a lot of geographical details of Assyria’s route into Judah: how at certain stations the Assyrian army scattered the people before them, crossed rivers, dropped off a depot, etc., but basically it describes an approach from the north, which is both the obvious way to get to Jerusalem and the easiest route for an Assyria which has just gobbled up Judah’s northern neighbor. So there’s a list of communities and notable places, arranged roughly north-to-south, terminating just outside of Jerusalem where the Assyrian king beckons the army onwards to pillage.

The nature of that pillaging (which will be pivotal for the next chapter) is presented in arboreal terms, with the destruction of Zion (and of the environs of Jerusalem) put in terms of the chopping down of trees, with forest thickets cut back, lofty trees felled, and the prized Lebanon cedars being dropped. This may be metaphorical for the general destruction and scouring of the land, or it could be talking about the literal vegetation around Jerusalem and its destruction by the oncoming army.

The next chapter, though, is totally going to take all those tree stumps and use them metaphorically.

Thibble Thursday: New Day Dawning (Isaiah 9)

Summer’s here. No excuse to not do this every week.

Short snarky summary: A new day of great joy is too come! The most joyful part of it, of course, will be when evildoers get what’s coming to them.

This chapter as a whole has a lyrical, poetic structure. There’s a repeated motif (a chorus, if you will) in between verses on individual topics. Structurally, it is very much a poem, or possibly even a song. Contentwise, though, it’s hard to know what to make or it, because i seems to be a messianic song of redemption stapled messily to an awfully vindictive tale of wrath. Is the future good or bad for Israel and Judah? This chapter is, to say the least, ambiguous on that point, because neither the jubilee nor the wrath seems to be targeted at a specific subset of the Hebrew people, so it’s not as if the good, kind, just people are designated for redemption while the greedy and the cruel are the targets of the wrath. I can’t quite bridge this tonal shift, so maybe as we work through it I’ll see a better way of looking at it that will make it make sense.

The first several verses set forth a tale of joy and peace: light dawning where there was dark, joy where there was once misery, and the destruction of all instruments of oppression. The last of these is a pretty standard social-justice theme of Isaiah, and it goes into fairly explicit detail cataloging the ephemera of the oppressor: yokes and sticks to torment the people, boots to stamp on them with, and “garments donned in infamy”. OK, the picture of slavery might have broken down there wih that last bit.

Further on within this same theme, there will be more discussion of the bounties of joy and peace and plenty, but before we get to that, we take a short dodge into the explicitly messianic, Like, literally, as in a significant section of the text of Handel’s Messiah: “For Unto Us a Child is Born” is taken from this verse. We’ve seen a lot of fate-imbued children in the last few chapters: Maher-shalal-hash-baz in Chapter 8, and Immanuel in Chapter 7. Both of these children’s births, however, have been more put forward as a sign of change than as the agent of change in their own right, whereas this child will have “authority settled on his shoulders”, giving him a more active role in bringing forth the golden age. A discussion of his name (or what he is called in this particular verse) calls attention to a difference between Jewish and Christian messianism, if I read it right: the Hebrew read is that his name is roughly “God is everlasting, the Prince of Peace”, which is pretty much in line with the sort of names attributed to pious characters throughout the Bible, whereas the Christian take is broadly that his name is “Everlasting God, the Prince of Peace”. That’s a significant difference in interpretation which plays out profoundly theologically, since mainstream Judaism has never attributed divinity to the messiah, whereas mainstream Christianity does. There might be a chicken-and-egg question as to whether the theology affected the interpretation or vice versa, but it’s a point of some interest here.

(Incidentally, on the subject of this parade of children, I’m not sure what standard commentary is on how many of these kids are the same, in either tradition. OK, I know that Christian theology typically equates the Immanuel of Chapter 7 with the messiah of Chapter 9 and elsewhere (and all of these figures with Jesus, of course), but I don’t know if Jewish interpretation also considers Immanuel the messiah, or how Maher-shalal-hash-baz fits into any of this.)

This block of text, with that messianic interjection, ends much as it began: that peace and justice will emanate from the throne of David. It’s heavily implied, if not stated outright, that the child “with authority on his shoulders” is in fact the heir of David (and standard messianism in both religions holds that the Messiah is from the line of David).

But next we move into a completely different prophecy, one which feels diametrically opposed to what we’ve just read. After the beautiful vision of a shining future of peace and prosperity, we get a harangue set in, as far as I can tell from my translation, the present tense and discussing God’s wrath and why Israel deserves it. Maybe the tense shift (now versus later) explains the dichotomy, although it’s a bit backwards from the rhetorically effective way to do this: present the crappy present first, and then the potential for the future. Either way, the sins credited to Israel are the ones we’ve seen before: greed and haughtiness, and lack of true justice. The framing is interestingly placed in the midst of the disaster: that Israel (presented through the metonym of Ephraim and Samaria, which we’ve seen before), having fallen prey to disaster, boastfully proclaims that they’ll rebuild but even better than before (specifically: stone instead of brick, cedar instead of sycamore), and that this prideful self-confidence is why God brought enemies to raze and loot the land.

At the end of this condemnation of self-confidence, we get the first of three repetitions of the chorus “Yet his anger has not turned back, and his arm is outstretched still”. I must admit I like this repetition and the structure it brings to this chapter, perhaps more than I should. It matches the themes of a present-tense wrath, and it has a lyrical quality which works.

The next stanza continues to itemize the tribulations God will bring forth. It starts with the phrase “For the people has not turned back to Him who has struck it,” which has an unsettling domestic-violence vibe, but I suppose that particular read in the God/israel relationship has always been there. The punishment to be exaced on Israel for this crime is to have their heads and tails cut off. But this is not a literal threat that Israelites will be decapitated, as the text hastens to mention! Raher, the people’s (corrupt) leaders are the heads, and the false prophets and counselor the tails. because these particular representatives of the people are so very wicked, apparently God will show them no mercy and strike them down. Already, Isaiah says, their wickedness has spread like fire, burning all it touches. There are specific victims of the unholy fire of Israel’s leaders’ wickedness given, but they all seem metaphorical: thorns, thistles, and forest all succumb to the spreading blaze. It would be cool if there were some context for reading these different types of vegetation as different aspects of the state and its people, but no dice.

The final stanza gets down to some specific natural disasters and large-scale human disasters. God’s fury apparently shakes the earth, which suggests some reference to an earthquake: there apparently was a major earthquake during the reign of Uzziah, which goes unmentioned in 2 Kings but appears prominently in the book of Amos. Also prophecied is civil strife, with every man raiding his kinsmen, with Ephraim against Manasseh and vice versa, and then both against Judah. It’s not clear what specific events in the histories of the two nations these prophecies refer to, but there’s a surfeit of choices: Israel had perpetual internal conflict, particularly over the succession oof kings who met violent ends at the hands of usurpers, and thy also occasionally opened hostilities against Judah, with whom relationships ranged from cold civility to outright war. So while I don’t have a single obvious reference for Isaiah’s prophecied war and discord, his prophecy certainly picks up on the general tenor of the times.

finally, this pronouncement of woe ends with the third (and thus rhythmically most powerful) repetition of the promise that God is not yet done with Israel’s punishment, the prophecy ends, as if Isaiah was saying, with his final repetition of the chorus: “Show’s over, folks. Go home.”

Next time: a final callback to the wrath of these stanzas, and more tedious local politics.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L11: Chicken Chow Mein

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

Still on backlog; anticipate a cavalcade of posts at some point, now that the semester’s over.

Chicken Chow Mein

I needed a wider angle to capture the noodles, so this is one of the rare portrait-orientation photos.

What exactly is this dish? “Chow mein” is a peculiarly variable term in American cuisine, describing a number of different dishes, most of which are preparation-style and noodle-choice variations on a stir-fried formula akin to a crispier version of lo mein. In several parts of the Midwest, however, “chow mein” is basically what is elsewhere called “chop suey” served with the crispy noodles which are a typical accompaniment to soup. This particular dish appears to be sliced chicken and veggies, particularly large pieces of cabbage, in a white sauce.

How authentically Chinese is it? In this particular incarnation? Not very. Not very Chinese at all. It might be the least authentically Chinese thing you can get at your average Chinese-American restaurant. The name 炒面 is authentically Chinese, apparently from the Taishanese dialect, and some dishes which share this name might have more authentically Chinese roots, but I’m answering the question for this specific variant.

Is it any good? Eh, not very. It’s ridiculously bland, and the big chunks-o-cabbage are texturally a bit overwhelming. The soup noodles are frankly a bit confusing: am I meant to put them in the sauce, where they lose a bit of their crunch, not unlike one does with soup? They certainly aren’ adding a lot to this particular dish, and given that “crispy noodles” are the namesake feature of chow mein, I’d expect them to play a more vital role than this sad little packet of soup noodles does.

How does it complement the rice? Well enough; the sauce is plentiful, thick, and velvety, even if it is bland.