Nantucket's Ludicrous Holiday Tradition: Flying In Chinese Food

Jason Graziadei •

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*Editor's note: This story was originally published in December, 2021. We're re-upping it once more for the New Year's Eve holiday.

The Nantucket tradition of ordering Chinese food from Hyannis and having it flown to the island aboard a Cape Air Cessna during the holidays has to be one of the most preposterous and ludicrous island customs. But we absolutely love it. We are here for it! So with New Year’s Eve upon us – and hundreds of pounds of hot Chinese food expected to land at Nantucket Memorial Airport tomorrow – we set out to learn more about this island tradition and interviewed people on both sides of Nantucket Sound.

This isn’t Uber Eats. Nantucketers call in their orders to the few Chinese food joints that will hustle the food to the airport – typically the Dragon Lite on Main Street – around Christmas time and New Year’s Day. Monte Liu, the owner of the Dragon Lite, has learned how to time it exactly so the food is cooked and delivered to the airport in Hyannis to match the schedule of the departing flights. The boxes of Chinese delicacies are stuffed into the nose compartment of one of Cape Air’s Cessna aircraft, and after the short 20-minute flight it arrives – still warm – at the Nantucket terminal to be picked up.

“They’re certainly the only airline delivering your food while it’s still warm,” Nantucket’s assistant airport manager Noah Karberg said of Cape Air.

Island residents have been doing this for decades, said Cape Air customer service representative Diane Gray, who has worked for the airline for 32 years. For a $25 fee, Cape Air will ship up to 25 pounds of Chinese food per order aboard one of its small planes headed to Nantucket, but it’ll cost you an extra dollar for every pound over that limit. And many of the orders, she said, do indeed top 25 pounds.

“It’s so crazy, but it really is a tradition,” Gray said. “This has been going on for all 32 years I’ve been here.”

On the surface, it couldn’t fit the elitist, haughty stereotype of Nantucket any better. You literally have your Chinese food *flown* to the island? But as Gray noted, it’s the island’s year-round families – the working class of Nantucket – that are the ones who are typically doing the ordering.

“Doesn’t it sound so decadent? Oh, so you’re craving Chinese food and flew it in on a plane? But that’s what it is and it sounds crazy, but it’s part of living on that island,” Gray said. “I do not believe it’s the rich people. This is your average Joe that is just craving Chinese food. It’s the people who’ve lived on their island their whole life, and it’s just a little extra something to bring in the new year and celebrate.”

One of those island families is the Stovers. Their tradition began with the matriarch – Catherine Flanagan Stover – the late Nantucket Town Clerk who loved Chinese food. With six children, their spouses and grandchildren all in the house around the holidays, cooking dinner for the masses had become “a major league task” John Stover said.

“She got to the point of saying ‘why bother,’ so Catherine would order up this mammoth supply of Chinese food that would last us three days,” Stover said. “It’s a treat, and no one needs to cook. For us, it’s a tradition that goes back at least 20 years. We started doing that and it worked out well for almost everyone in the family.”

The Stovers’ Christmas day order from Dragon Light – four big boxes – came in this year right on schedule, he added.

Monte Liu, the owner of the Dragon Lite, said he’s been shipping his restaurant’s Chinese food to Nantucket aboard Cape Air flights for more than three decades now. It’s been so long, in fact, that he’s seen generations of customers taking part in the tradition.

“I’m so used to it, we’ve been doing it for 30 years,” Liu said. “I know a lot of people’s names on Nantucket – I don’t know the person, but I know the name. The family grows, and now the kids grow up and they order.”

Liu said his staff has the timing down to a science: “we take the order, and we start to cook when we need to. When it gets there, it may not be hot, but it’s warm.”

At its peak several years ago, Liu said the Dragon Lite would send as many as 30 or more orders to the island on New Year’s Day.

But several factors have slightly diminished the tradition in recent years. When it began decades ago, there were no restaurants on Nantucket offering Asian cuisine. But that has changed, with dining establishments like Siam To Go, The Thai House, Sushi By Yoshi (now Bar Yoshi), Shangri La Kitchen, and Sushi Sean, all offering excellent Asian food on the island. Then there was the bankruptcy of Island Airlines and the reduction in commuter flights offered by Cape Air, Liu said, which diminished the number of flights available to send food orders over from the Cape.

There was a brief stretch following Island Airlines demise when the freight situation at Nantucket Memorial Airport was in flux and the practice ceased all together. But Cape Air has resumed offering the service, to the relief of many Nantucket families.

Perhaps the only people who aren’t fans of the tradition are the Cape Air pilots.

“It drives the pilots crazy,” Gray said. “It goes in the nose of the aircraft, and you’re dealing with sauces so it needs to be standing up straight. That smell permeates the whole cabin, it drives them crazy. You have that smell, that aroma, and you’ve got pilots and they’re hungry! It’s really funny. It’s phenomenal what they actually order.”

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