Dine In Catering
American Jews, Chinese Food, and Christmas Day
On Christmas Day, the American Jewish community will overindulge on Chinese food with many getting their food and drinks catered by the likes of Pei Wei. Such is the strong connection between the two that it has become codified custom, a radical departure from when it first started as a necessity and transitioned into a kitsch tradition.
But how did American Jews come to love Chinese food on a major Christian holiday?
A Match Made of Necessity
The relationship between the two was born out of necessity, as surprising as it may sound. In the United States, most dining establishments were closed during Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But many people including the Jewish population still needed to eat, perhaps even needed to get into the spirit of the holiday.
But the Chinese restaurants remained open during these times so people looking for delicious food during these times flocked to them. American Jews were one of them and thus was born the uniquely American contemporary tradition. Even Supreme Court Justice Kagan acknowledged that, as an American Jew, she was in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day.
Yet another aspect of necessity was in the feeling of belongingness or otherness, depending on your point of view. At the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese and Jews were the two largest non-Christian groups of immigrants in the United States. The two outsider groups bonding, sort of, over a common cuisine made sense, even if it was just for a day or two.
An Illusion of Kosher Compliance
But the Jews have kosher rules, you say, and Chinese cooking methods aren’t exactly compliant with strict kosher rules. You’re right in a way but there’s also the matter of Chinese dishes being somewhat compliant.
American Jews found that Chinese food followed many kosher requirements so it was so easy to trick yourself into believing that it was, indeed, kosher food. Such belief may be right or wrong, especially since Chinese cuisine was also heavy on pork and shellfish (i.e., forbidden foods), but it definitely stuck.
One reason for it is that Chinese cuisine typically doesn’t include dairy and Jewish kosher rule prohibits mixing meat and milk. In contrast, Mexican and Italian cuisines generally mix meat and milk so these are generally considered as prohibited in Jewish culture.
The result: American Jews can enjoy Chinese food without worrying about kosher rules – at least, up to a certain extent. The trick is in making the right food and drink orders so that kosher food can still be enjoyed.