Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I'll Be Looking at the Moon, But I'll Be Seeing Mom

Moon cakes (月餅) range from traditional to cartoon inspired or ice cream filled.
Posted at 2:18 PM
When I was a girl, my mother's monthly loot from the Chinese grocery store occasionally included moon cakes. Red bean or lotus seed paste filled a tender layer of thin dough molded into shapes with symbols I didn't understand. A full moon of yolk, from a preserved duck egg, virtually glowed at the heart. Its slight saltiness highlighted the filling's sweetness.

My mother used to smile as her thin fingers unwrapped a cake. Food is life — feeding, an act of love. She'd carefully cut it into little wedges, like precious slices of birthday cake, measured perfectly equally for me and my sister. Mom often recalled some tidbit from her own childhood in Taiwan.

Back then, I didn't listen too closely. I also gave little thought to the treasures she'd brought home. They were like salt or pepper — just there.

Years later, living more than a thousand miles from Mom, I suddenly needed to know. One day I shouted into the telephone in hopes her hearing aid could pick up my voice: "What do you call those little cakes with the lotus seed and egg yolk — moon cakes?"


I raised my volume. "Remember — moon cakes? What do you call them?"

She finally got it. "Oh, yue bing."

What were they for? She said something quickly in Chinese — a blur of sound slipping past.


"Mid-Autumn Festival," she repeated, this time in English. I tried to ask more about the festival and update her on her grandkids, her little bao baos — precious babies. I yelled into the phone; she didn't understand. I tried again; she couldn't catch anything. We may as well have been on different planets. Feeling bad for her, frustrated that she still refuses to try a new hearing aid, I shouted that I'd e-mail her via my sister, back in New Jersey.

Since then I've learned the festival takes place on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. This year, that occurs tomorrow, Sept. 22. One traditional story describes how a legendary figure gained immortality and became the Lady of the Moon. On the evening of the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, you're supposed to eat yue bing while gazing at the full moon.
In another story, set during the Yuan dynasty, rebels sent secret messages via moon cakes to organize an uprising against Mongol rule on the 15th day of the eighth month.

Now the goodies convey auspicious messages such as "longevity."

Recently, moon cakes have evolved. In cosmopolitan areas, you may be able to find theme cakes shaped like children's cartoon characters. Others feature gelatin, foie gras or ice cream. These little cakes make for big business in Asia. But not in central Illinois. I've been unable to get any, modern or not.

I long for a traditional yue bing. I'd call Mom, but she wouldn't hear the phone ring. I close my eyes, imagine my teeth sinking into the dense filling as my mother nibbles her morsel while chatting. For a moment, I try to let the sweetness take me home.

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