One of my last meals out this year was roast pork and black pepper chicken and a hot and sour soup from Mama Jean’s Kitchen in Cambridge.
Lo mein was earthy and deeply flavored with tender pasta and crisp vegetables, including water chestnuts and tender pork; Chicken dish gently seasoned and pepper forward.
With Omicron’s apparent foresight, Mama Jean, on Water at Thorne and a stone’s throw from Grand in Galt, kept the quaint dining room closed, with an emphasis on pickup and delivery.
The idea of Lo mein—and the business model—has made me think of the Chinese restaurant in general: If there’s one day I’ve eaten more than any other, it’s January 1.
I’m Not Alone: Chinese restaurants are open almost every day of the year, with a very busy period from December 24 to January 2.
There’s comfort in knowing a plate of Singaporean noodles, a bowl of wonton soup or foo yung eggs are a phone call away during the hectic holiday season—certainly if restaurant dining rooms aren’t where you currently want to be.
While they work hard year-round – as restaurant workers do throughout the industry – employees in Chinese restaurants, in front of the house and behind the house, usually families, are working hard at the moment.
In cities across the country, Chinese restaurants are part of the fabric of society, a bedrock of a food culture that easily outnumbers outlets of the quick-service burger chain. I remember a meal at Waterloo’s Tien Hoa Inn as a kid but not one visit from McDonald’s.
In part, the business as usual approach means they’re open and available to feed you if you don’t want to worry about cooking during the holidays.
And frankly, for a lot of people, Christmas isn’t a big deal—or any kind of deal at all—even if it’s part of their heritage. However, the row of pans in a Chinese restaurant kitchen is always blazing hot and ready to cook up some comfort.
The history and traditions of this food culture subgenre go back 100 years and more, including an interesting and rich literature that explores the phenomenon of Jewish New Yorkers patronizing old-fashioned homes and Chinese restaurants. I’m sure this is the case in Canada as well.
Another piece of science? Heading to a new movie, often released during the holiday season (Spielberg’s West Side Story, anyone?), then for Chinese food dishes, it’s a time-honored event with family and friends over the holiday period.
While Omicron has thrown a wrench into the gears of tradition by imposing new restrictions on gathering—making many people uncomfortable around public spaces—Chinese food this holiday season is a staunch champion, a distinctive ritual of dining out. It’s comfort food, easy and simple, for any dining demographic.
Menus typically feature appetizers, soup, rice and pasta sections, lunch and dinner sets, and “2-8 family dinners,” and are usually neatly categorized into A and B.
There are heavy, double-lined bags marked “Chinese Food” written in lucky red letters and attached to the sales receipt and restaurant menu included; aluminum containers and lids; chopsticks with paper sleeves to divide into two parts; And, of course, fortune cookies.
So, if turkey and leftovers aren’t of interest, opt for some hot and sour soup, roast pork, beef, shrimp or vegetables — and some black pepper chicken.
Chinese food on holidays is more than just fun: it’s a chapter in our culinary history. The exception that proves the rule? Mama Jane’s kitchen is closed on December 24 and 25, so you’ll have to wait to turn the page there.
Andrew Copolino is a Kitchener-based food writer and broadcaster. Visit him at www.andrewcoppolino.com.