We Order Chinese Food On Thanksgiving – It's Our Family Tradition

by Virginia Duan
Originally Published: 
Mom and child enjoying Chinese Food on Thanksgiving
Tang Ming Tung/Getty

I stopped cooking a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for my family a few years ago and it’s really one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. I say “we” because my husband was the one who suggested I stop making a turkey because the ROI was just so incredibly dismal. (Hey, I make a fantastic turkey — but no matter how amazing a roasted turkey is, it is still, disappointingly, a roasted turkey.)

My husband would take all the kids to watch a movie in the early afternoon (yes, I realize that many people eat Thanksgiving dinner during lunch and call it a dinner — something I will never comprehend in all of my life — like what is time?) as I scrambled to make the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and salad. Later that evening, my grandaunt (RIP) would roast beets, my mother would make cranberry sauce, and we’d invite family friends over who would bring their own dishes — often of the Chinese variety.

My children would proceed to eat a few bites of all this home-cooked goodness, and then promptly demand chicken nuggets and pizza.

Going back to my roots

And thus, even before the pandemic, we returned to my roots and resumed the restaurant Thanksgiving dinner. Not to be confused with the restaurant Christmas dinner tradition (which is also another Duan family custom), the restaurant Thanksgiving dinner is similar in that they both take place in Chinese restaurants and are also on holidays.

But otherwise, they’re totally different.

Why did I bother in the first place?

Growing up, I never cared for Thanksgiving foods. Maybe it was a natural byproduct of being in an immigrant household — no one knew how to make any of the food, and the forced commercial gratitude seemed trite and meaningless to me.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure what we ate for Thanksgiving dinner when I was a young child. Likely because it ran together with what we ate for all our “fancy” holiday meals. Odds are, it was either Chinese hot pot, teppanyaki, or fancier Chinese food my mother would make. Maybe, there would be a roast duck from our local Asian market.

In fact, until we joined a Chinese church and more of my mother’s friends immigrated from Taiwan, I really can’t recall eating a “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner. My only exposure to turkey and all the fixings were the dismal TV dinner-like profferings from our school lunch program. To say I was underwhelmed is probably underselling it.

However, once family friends started immigrating more regularly, there was always at least one new family who had never experienced an “authentic” American Thanksgiving and so, these group potlucks full of fantastic homemade Chinese food would feature one lonely and dry precooked turkey from some grocery store. No one knew how to carve the thing, and it would just sit on the counter with a few minor chunks sliced out, while the real stars of the evening (that aforementioned duck, nuo mi fan, and everything else) disappeared with the quickness.

Short of mashed potatoes and gravy (I mean, what’s to dislike about carbs covered in fat?), I didn’t understand why American holiday foods were so astonishingly terrible. Every year, I complained that it would be a waste of food — but I suppose the Chinese tradition of turkey congee the day after made it worth it.

Then, once all the kids grew up, my parents decided it was too much trouble and from thence, our tradition of the Chinese restaurant Thanksgiving was born.

So why did I bother when I had kids of my own?

Well, first of all, my husband grew up in a family where his mother did the full Thanksgiving dinner. And, since we rarely saw his family, I thought it would be nice for my husband to re-create that tradition with our kids.

Second, part of me wanted my kids to have something that seemed quintessentially “American.” There is something super nostalgic and bonding about an entire nation sharing a custom and celebration. I wanted to capture some of that since so much of my childhood was accepting that my family was not like everyone else’s.

Lastly, making Thanksgiving dinner seemed like what a grown up woman did when she had a family. And I wanted to think that I, too, could be that kind of woman. (I, dear reader, am not.)

I’m so glad my husband realized that it made me miserable before I did.

Also, in retrospect, to have a truly authentic American Thanksgiving, we’d have to partake in genocide and enslaved labor, dress it up as Manifest Destiny, and then sell this collection of damaging lies to our children from now into perpetuity. Oh, too soon?

At any rate, I now book a reservation at our family’s favorite Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving (and Christmas) — or rather, in this time of the panorama, I order takeout. (Last year, I picked up the food a day ahead because the restaurant would be closed on the day of. It was still delicious.)

The best part

So, what’s the best part of ordering Chinese takeout on Thanksgiving? All of it. That’s right. ALL OF IT.

It’s not just the day-of nonsense like the actual cooking of food (which in and of itself, requires so much labor and I used to outsource a LOT of it). It’s all the emotional labor and prep work beforehand.

I do not need to spend time stressing about buying a turkey (organic, of course) before all the reasonably sized turkeys were sold out, then figuring out whether to freeze the damn bird and if I do freeze it, when to take it out and defrost it. I don’t have to account for brining at least 24 hours before I start prepping the bird — nor do I have to deal with the panic of possibly popping the brining bag full of raw turkey juice (and yes, this has happened all over my fridge and kitchen floor).

I don’t need to plan the menu ahead of time, coordinate what other folks should bring, or consider dessert(s) and libations. And unless people are coming over, I definitely don’t have to spend time cleaning my house to make it presentable.

I don’t have to slowly make a dent in all the leftovers as all the best foods are consumed first (oh, gravy, we hardly knew you) and hate the thought of turkey anything for the entirety of a year before I have to do the whole rigmarole again.

All I have to do is hand over a non-zero amount of my money, pay the good folks at my local restaurant, and eat. Boom. Done.

Plus, my children learn the ever important lesson that we get to decide what to spend our precious free time upon — and not once does it have to be eating a dry, boring turkey.

This article was originally published on