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