This is the time of year when, for American Jews such as myself, visions of Chinese plum sauce dance in my head. It's a trend that dates back decades—the Chinese food Christmas meal has been whimsically described as a sacred Jewish tradition. But, recent research reveals that it's become popular among non-Jews as well.
The Jewish romance with Chinese food began in New York City among Eastern European immigrants. An academic paper titled "Safe Treyf" (treyf means unkosher), published by Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine in the journal, Contemporary Ethnography, offers a wonderful summary of the history:
Chinese food is unkosher and therefore non-Jewish. But because of the specific ways that Chinese food is prepared and served, immigrant Jews and their children found Chinese food to be more attractive and less threatening than other non-Jewish or treyf food. Chinese food was what we term "safe treyf." Chinese restaurant food used some ingredients that were familiar to Eastern European Jews. Chinese cuisine also does not mix milk and meat; indeed it doesn't use dairy products at all. In addition, anti-Semitism, anti-Chinese racism, and the low position of the Chinese in American society also (perhaps paradoxically) made Jews feel safe and comfortable in Chinese restaurants.
Second, Jews construed Chinese restaurant food as cosmopolitan. For Jews in New York, eating in Chinese restaurants signified that one was not a provincial or parochial Eastern European Jew, not a "greenhorn" or hick. In New York City, immigrant Jews, and especially their children and grandchildren, regarded Chinese food as sophisticated and urbane.
And, since—as Ralphie's family learned in A Christmas Story—Chinese restaurants were among the only places to dine that were open on the holiday, an annual tradition was born.
But, recent research suggests that our holiday cultural melting pot is increasingly embracing stir-fry. At the Washington Post's Wonkblog, Roberto Ferdman shows how interest in Chinese food spikes considerably each and every year on Christmas, as evidenced by Google search trends. "No other day during the year compares, or even comes close," he writes.
Meanwhile, at Slate, Ben Blatt scrutinizes data provided by GrubHub, which reveals the proportion of total sales enjoyed by different cuisines and how those proportions change on any given day.
Here's an example from the data: On Feb. 2, 2014—Super Bowl Sunday—the percentage of all orders that were for pizza increased 22 percent. This could mean pizza sales increased from 10 percent of all GrubHub sales to 12.2 percent of total sales that day. But it could also mean pizza increased from 1 percent to 1.22 percent. Any percent increase described in this article represents a percentage change in percentage of orders, not a percentage change in number of orders.
So, what about Christmas? On Dec.25, 2013, the percentage of all orders that were for Chinese food increased by 152 percent. By comparison, the fraction of orders from restaurants listed on the site as American, pizza, or Mexican all declined by at least 30 percent last Christmas.
By contrast, the worst day for Chinese orders relative to the competition is Super Bowl Sunday, when there was a 16 percent decrease in the percentage of orders represented by Chinese.
In recent years, restaurants have been experimenting with Chinese-Jewish fusion cuisine. (Fancy a pastrami egg roll?) So, if this tradition is indeed expanding beyond the Jewish community, I'll be looking forward to tasting Asian variations of classic Christmas dishes. I wonder what could be done with fruitcake?