The air is dry as a bone here in L.A., one sign that summer is over. I am glad, as the last several weeks of hundred-degree heat have gotten tiresome. Now, it's only about 85, and people are perspiring not because it's hot, but because it's dry. When it was hot, it was so hot that even Australians were complaining about the weather. "It's oppressive, really," said one. Now, when an Aussie says it's oppressively hot, it must darn well be very hot.
Another marker of the seasons is the approach of the Harvest Moon Festival. This is a big holiday in Chinese culture. It falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of each lunar year, which has the brightest full moon of the year. This year, it's the 28th. How do you celebrate the Harvest Moon Festival, you ask?
Well, you visit relatives, if you're not currently fighting with them, or if you are, you may also go and make tight-lipped smiles and pleasantries. You will probably fib about you own life so that you sound more successful than you really are. But everyone else will be doing it, too. You also eat moon cakes, which are one of the few holiday foods that haven't been bastardized and commercialized so that they're available in the Chinese community all year long. I mean, imagine if hot cross buns were available any time of the year. How special would that be?
Moon cakes generally come in boxes of four and are so heavy with fat, sugar, and calories that it's folly to try to eat more than one at a single go. They have a pastry crust that goes all around, and contain different fillings within. Every year the same drama plays out in my parents' house around these little dietary smart-bombs. About three to four weeks before the festival, my mom will throw frugality to the wind and buy a box of moon cakes (about fifteen dollars' worth) even though it's nowhere near the right date for eating them. Since she knows that she's going to have to buy more later, she gets mid-range moon cakes which, while good, don't taste quite so great. The box goes in the refrigerator and everyone in the family struggles for a few days not to rip it open and devour the cakes inside. Sometimes a rogue operative (usually my father) will just go ahead and do it, and when we open the box later, we'll find three cakes instead of four, with no explanation given. Eventually my mom brings the box out and cuts each moon cake into six little slices, and we engage in a feeding frenzy, under cover of whose chaos at least one sibling manages to bogart another sibling's share. Feelings will be wounded, but will quickly heal.
Later, about one week before the holiday, my mom will buy the moon cakes that we'll "really" eat. These get saved for proper consumption. They will be more expensive than the first set, and, while mediocre moon cakes are good, deluxe moon cakes are heaven. Sometimes my mom gets the deluxe set from the market, and sometimes from a specialty bakery, perhaps the L.A. branch of some chi-chi posh Hong Kong bakery. Different bakeries go in and out of style over the years, and you'll see lines of little old Chinese ladies with their sons idling their Japanese import cars in parking lots in different parts of town. One year my mom got our "good" moon cakes from a restaurant which was making them in the style of the province which she came from. Those were very good, and very different from usual. Sadly, that restaurant has gone out of business, not because its food wasn't excellent (the Chinese restaurant business in my area is a cutthroat bloodbath), but because there wasn't enought of a market for cuisine from Guangzhou. No matter where they're from, the good moon cakes my mom buys will always show up in a very fancy box which everyone will begin lusting after upon first sight. My mom will deflect demands for "just a taste" from every member of the family all week long and at long last, on the night that the moon will be bright enough to read by, she will open the fancy box and slice four moon cakes into six slivers each. That's if my father hasn't successfully executed any covert operations. And that's what's on my mind right now. Moon cakes!
So where would a very non-Chinese boy go to get some of these fabled moon cakes without a.) accidentally buying a box of spark plugs because he can't read any form of Chinese, or b.) getting laughed at?
by snaggle at September 22, 2004 3:26 AM
I eat at a Vietnamese restaraunt every Friday. Last time I told the owner that although I loved the food, I've tried all 79 entries on the menu. Might he suggest something? He walks away inscrutably and comes back with a dumpy looking woman who is evidently the chef. They confer in Vietnamese and announce that she will make me something special. It might not be as good as moon cakes but man, the Vietnamese version of the Chinese classic orange chicken is, well... not so good. I felt like I had to eat it though.
by anna at September 22, 2004 7:37 AM
Yes, yes, where do we get moon cakes?
by Linz at September 22, 2004 1:33 PM
Welp, there's a big Chinese supermarket chain called Ranch 99. You can find your nearest location here, and just go and get the second or third most expensive brand you see. Don't buy anything cheaper than $10 for four moon cakes, unless they're tiny, like 2" square (or 2" diameter), for example. They usually run about 4" square. If you go to a Ranch 99 on a Saturday afternoon, they'll probably be offering samples, so you can check those out first. You guys have only until the 28th, okay? :) Linz, there seems to be one in an Atlanta suburb. Snaggle, I don't know where in L.A. you moved to, so I don't know how close you are to one. If you're close to where I am, maybe I can drop some off and spare you the possible terror... of, say, walking past the fish tanks at the market and seeing the butchers club catfish to death. :) I think the most newbie-friendly varieties are red bean paste filling and lotus seed paste filling. And while I very much hope not, it's possible that even those are an acquired taste. Oh yes, don't attempt to wash them down with anything besides black tea. I've tried, only tea works. Chinese tea will be better, but Lipton will do, too. Let me know how you do!
by jean at September 23, 2004 4:54 AM
I dunno, I'd probably go just to see the butchers clubbing catfish to death. Damn slimy bottom-dwellers kept stealing my bait at OBX.
by anna at September 23, 2004 9:29 PM
I'm in Van Nuys. Apparently, there's one here on Sepulveda. We'll have to give it a try.
by snaggle at September 24, 2004 2:09 AM
Ah VN is a little far. I'm near Pasadena. Good luck at the Ranch on Sepulveda! Anna, the sight is one to behold. My mom used to take us grocery shopping every weekend, and we kids would pack into the shopping cart. One time she stuck a catfish that was supposed to be dead, into the cart with us... but it revived and flopped around. The Chinese markets around here also have bins of live crabs and clams, and sometimes even turtles. It sure leaves one few illusions about how meat gets on the dinner table.
by jean at September 24, 2004 5:33 AM
I never knew those were called Moon Cakes. My mom called them some name in "Chinese" that I'm not even going to try to spell. I think they might even have a different name here, because I've seen 'em elsewhere with different names (which I can't remember right now). And, I've also seen 'em available all year round. Which is great, because they are great. Yum. A crust, pastry almost as good as Krispy Kreme, but with a variety of beany (in a good way) fillings.
by mg at September 27, 2004 7:14 PM
When it comes to childhood trauma there isn't much to compare with sharing a shopping cart with a flopping, slimy, spiny catfish.
by anna at September 28, 2004 10:10 AM