Christmas movies are as big a part of the holiday season as twinkling lights and elves that go jingle in the night.
The choices are broad and span generations. I grew up watching as many versions of “A Christmas Carol” as I could, whether it star Reginald Sim, Albert Finney, Mr. Magoo or The Fonz.
“Miracle on 34th Street,” and a fleet of animated specials supplemented Scrooge, and in the years that followed “It's a Wonderful Life,” “Prancer,” “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation,” “The Santa Clause,” “Scrooged,” “Love, Actually,” and “Elf” have joined the can't-miss list.
But “A Christmas Story” is the holiday classic with which I share the most history. It took many years and dozens of viewings for me to realize the film not only one of the best Christmas films ever made, but also serves as a conduit to a craving for Chinese food.
Thus, it's the perfect fit for Dinner and a Movie.
I don't have vivid memories of Thanksgiving 1983, but I can promise my thoughts were squarely a month ahead. Not to Christmas but the day after, which would've been my 16th birthday and the promise of freedom only a driver's license can offer.
So, it's easy to understand how I missed the birth of “A Christmas Story” in theaters around the country.
Based on the stories of Jean Shepherd, the Bob Clark film starred Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, who has become as synonymous with the holiday as Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. By the time I turned 16, Ralphie's theater-run was all but over. The low-budget filmed performed modestly enough for handshakes all around but no allusions of grandeur for its legacy.
None of the cast would use the film as a springboard to super stardom. Clark, who built his career on some surprise hits filmed in Canada, including the first two “Porky's” films, would go on to film such canonical titles at “Turk 182,” “Rhinestone,” “Baby Geniuses,” and the unforgettably unforgiveable “Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2.”
“A Christmas Story” built enough of an audience during its 1985 run on HBO that superstations WTBS and WGN plus fledgling Fox picked it up for a Thanksgiving run that lasted from 1988 until Ted Turner bought the MGM library in the early 1990s.
Starting in 1995, TBS, TNT and TCM played badminton with the film between Christmas Eve and my birthday. When TNT ran its first 24 hours of “A Christmas Story” event, my son Luke was celebrating his first Christmas as a two-month old.
Ralphie, The Old Man, the Red Ryder BB gun, the Bumpass hounds and, of course, Skut Farkas have been a part of Luke and my daughter's every Christmas. They, along with a little more than 4 million people per year watch the film on Christmas Eve. By the time the season is over, the number of folks who will laugh again when Flick gets double-dog-dared into a fateful face-off with a frozen poll will be five times that number.
Through the years, the film has been a seasonal conversation point with friends and family. Swapping favorite scenes is as common as swapping gifts: What's funnier than Darren McGavin's misunderstanding of the Italian language? Randy eating dinner like a good little piggy? Perhaps Aunt Clara's gift to Ralphie? For me, the best part of the film followed the Bumpass-hounds' attack on the family's Christmas bird. Accompanied by a makeshift Harrerujah Chorus at the Chop Suey Palace, the Parkers feast on “Chinese Turkey” — that is after some heady table-side butchering.
As hilarious as the scene was then and remains today, I never realized just how much it put me in the mood for Chinese take-out-style food until a few years ago. Then last year, I took the first step: admitting the truth.
Thanks to Ken Hom's “Complete Chinese Cookbook” (BBC Books, 2011), I was able to make a nice version of Sweet and Sour Chicken with some fried rice to accompany our annual viewing.
And what to my wondering eyes did appear this year to help continue the tradition but Diana Kuan's “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” and I've graduated to General Tso's Chicken and Egg Foo Young.
As my family's annual screening of “A Christmas Story” moves closer to a Chinese buffet, here's a couple of recipes for those inclined to wield a wok.
Next year, perhaps I'll attempt some Peking Duck — head to be determined.
General Tso's Chicken
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in 1-inch cubes
1½ cups cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups peanut or vegetable oil for frying, plus 1 tablespoon for stir-frying
6 dried whole chiles de arbol
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon toasted white sesame seeds
Six green onions thinly sliced
1 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
2 egg whites
¼ cup chicken stock
1½ tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon sambal oelek
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
In a large mixing bowl, combine the soy sauce, rice wine, egg whites then add the chicken. Let stand 20 to 30 minutes.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the chicken stock, tomato paste, sugar, soy sauce, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, sambal, sesame oil, sugar, and the 1 teaspoon of cornstarch. Stir until the sugar and cornstarch are dissolved. Set the sauce aside.
In a large bowl, toss the 1½ cups cornstarch with the salt and pepper. Coat the marinated chicken in the cornstarch and shake off any excess before frying.
Heat the 3 cups of peanut or vegetable oil in a heated wok to 350 degrees on an instant-read oil thermometer. Working in 2 or 3 batches, add the first batch of chicken cubes and fry until golden brown on the outside and cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the chicken.
Drain the oil into a heatproof container and save for discarding. Wipe the wok with a paper towel to remove any brown bits, but don't wash.
Reheat the wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Add another 1 tablespoon of oil and swirl to coat the base and sides. Add the dried chilis and garlic to the wok and stir-fry until just fragrant, about 20 seconds. Pour in the sauce mixture and stir until thickened, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Return the chicken to the wok and stir well to coat with sauce. Transfer the chicken to a serving dish. Garnish with white sesame seeds and green onions.
Serve with steamed white or fried rice.
SOURCE: Adapted from a recipe in Diana Kuan's “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook.” (Ballantine, 2012)
Egg Foo Young
For the Gravy
¾ cup chicken stock
1½ teaspoons soy sauce
1½ hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water
For the pancakes
2 tablespoons peanut oil
3 or 4 shiitake or cremini mushrooms, stems removed and thinly sliced
5 green onions, whites and greens separated
1½ cups bean sprouts
¼ chopped Chinese-style sausage (available at Chinatown Supermarket and Super Cao Nguyen Market
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil or chili oil
Make the gravy first, by heating a small saucepan and bringing the chicken stock to a boil in it. Reduce to a simmer, and stir in the soy sauce, hoisin sauce, cornstarch slurry. Simmer another minute until the sauce thickens. Keep warm on lowest heat and cover. You might need to kill the heat completely from time to time as you make the rest.
Heat a wok over medium-high heat about about a minute. To test, flick a bead of water on the surface. If it evaporates immediately, the wok is ready.
Add a tablespoon of peanut oil and swirl the wok so the bottom is coated. Add the mushrooms, onion whites, and bean sprouts and stir-fry until the mushrooms and sprouts soften and the onions are fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes. Toss in the sausage and combine thoroughly. Stir in the soy sauce and sesame or chili oil and cook another minute, making sure the sauce is evenly distributed. Remove from heat and place in a cool bowl. Let stand until mixture has cooled enough to add the eggs without cooking them.
Beat the eggs in a separate bowl with a little water and stir in the cooled vegetables and sausage.
Heat the remaining oil in the wok over medium heat. Working in batches, ladle a ¼ cup of the egg mixture in the wok and let spread into pancake shape. Cook until eggs have set, flipping once, no more than 2 minutes.
Transfer the finished eggs to a warmed plate and cover. Repeat until the mixture is exhausted, adding more oil to the wok as necessary.
Drizzle the eggs with gravy or serve it on the side. Garnish with remaining green onion.
SOURCE: Adapted from Diana Kuan's “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook.”