Eating Over The Sink
If you come looking for me in September on the evening of the full moon, I’ll be outside in the backyard. (No, I will not be out running with werewolves; that’ll be next month, at Halloween.) Glorious Spouse and I will be in the yard, reclining side by side on our matching lounge chairs, gazing up at the moon. And, I’ll be reciting some poetry, beginning with the one written by the old famous Chinese poet, Li Bai:
“The moonlight is shining through the window, And it makes me wonder if it is the frost on the ground. Looking up to see the moon looking down. I miss so much about my hometown.”
We will be celebrating the Chinese Moon Cake Festival. This celebration, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, holds important cultural, historical, and mythical importance for Chinese people. It also is a food extravaganza, with moon cakes in center stage. But, alas, dear friends, the Moon Cake Festival is not a low carb event.
Moon cakes are essentially a type of filled dumpling, round and flat in shape, made from flour with a variety of fillings. They are typically about three inches in diameter and one and a half inches in thickness, and they resemble Western fruitcakes in taste, (so you know that I, for one, will have no problem passing them up).
Moon cakes are filled with mixtures of things which can range from sweet red bean paste, nuts, lotus seed paste, and sesame seed paste, to salted meat, melon seeds, Chinese dates, and dry fruit. And hidden down in the middle, is a yellow duck egg yolk which represents the full moon. The golden-brown crusts of the cakes are decorated with Chinese symbols, and the cakes are traditionally piled in groups of thirteen, symbolizing the thirteen months of the lunar year.
The moon festival is an occasion for family reunions, out under the moon, where people eat moon cakes. The festival is also a romantic holiday, where lovers toast the moon and each other, while they eat moon cakes. The important thing to do is eat cakes when the full moon is bright and high in the sky. Scores of millions of these cakes are made and eaten, and all eaten in one night. Celebrants not only buy moon cakes for themselves, they buy cakes to send as gifts to relatives and friends, especially those far away from home. So many moon cakes are required for this celebration that most bakeries in China make nothing except them for weeks before the holiday. And then, immediately after the moon sets on the morning following the festival, not a single moon cake can be found anywhere, not until next year.
Historically, the Moon Cake Festival marks the success of a 14th-century rebellion of the Chinese against their Mongol rulers. Secrets about the plot to overthrow the rulers were hidden inside cakes, and passed among the people. But the holiday is really older than that. Before the 14th-century coup, the holiday was merely called the Mid-Autumn celebration, and it was all on account of the legend of Chang Er. I’ll tell you about that in a minute, but first back to the overthrow plot.
Chinese used-to-be-leaders, and wanna-be-leaders were no longer in power, and they were understandably unhappy about it. They set about to coordinate a rebellion without it being discovered. Since the Mid-Autumn moon celebration was drawing near, they ordered the making of special cakes, each containing a message that outlined the upcoming attack. These cakes were distributed far and wide, and everyone was able to do their part in the uprising. Since then, moon cakes are eaten to commemorate the victory.
But, the moon festival was already a hot calendar item before that, because of Hou Yi. Now come sit over here on Uncle Zack’s knee, and I’ll tell you the 4000-year-old story.
Once upon a time, the Earth had ten suns circling over it. Usually, each sun took its turn to illuminate the ground below, but one day all ten suns appeared together, scorching the Earth with their heat. But all was saved by the actions of a super-strong archer named Hou Yi. Hou Yi succeeded in shooting down nine of the suns. Because of this, he became an instant hero and the people made him Emperor.
Unfortunately, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Hou Yi became a tyrant who was obsessed with prolonging his life, and therefore, his power. He decided to steal the Elixir of Life from a Goddess.
Hou Yi’s wife, the very beautiful Chang Er (sometimes called Chang-O, but who’s keeping score?), was afraid that the immortality of Hou Yi would bring endless suffering to everyone else, so she sought out the vial containing the potion. Chang Er drank the contents of the vial, and immediately thereafter, found herself floating in the air. On the air, she wafted to the moon. (Don’t get picky-picky on me about there being no air between here and the moon. Take it up with Chang Er.) Anyway, Chang Er is still there on the moon, and you can see her dancing during the Moon Festival.
Glorious Spouse and I will be outside looking at the moon, but we won’t be eating moon cakes. There are some other special foods for the festival which we also won’t be eating, thank you very much. Things like cooked taro, edible snails from the taro patches, and these same snails plucked from rice paddies and cooked with herbs and something called water caltrope. Water caltrope is said to be a type of water chestnut that resembles black buffalo horns. Cooked taro is included because legend has it that at the time of Creation, taro was the first food discovered at night in the moonlight.
Again, no thanks. We’ll be looking at the moon, but we’ll be seeing Ewe. Glorious Spouse will grill some lamb chops for dinner, and I’ll draw some appropriate Chinese symbols on a few hard boiled chicken eggs. Enjoyment of the Festival will be all the better for not coming too close to any fruit cakes or chunks of buffalo horn.
Zack Grady writes from Southern California, where he’ll be getting out his telescope to check out dancing on the moon.