Last night I spent my first Moon Festival on Chinese soil in eleven years. I celebrated the occasion at a banquet given by the parents of my young pupils.
The banquet took place at a restaurant specializing in roast duck. It's a famous place, but I’d never heard of it. I’m not up on my Beijing haute cuisine, my low tastes usually being drawn more towards the bluff, crusty, salt-of-the-earth sort of food you get from street vendors. The sort that makes no apologies for its garlic content and reckons that two chilies are always better than one, particularly since the heat can generally be mitigated by plenty of mantou, the delicious steamed peasant bread my hosts are generally too polite to offer me whenever I am dining out.
Nevertheless, even I could tell that this duck house was quite special. The ducks came with certificates of breeding, and I don’t suppose you can really get much swankier than that. Unless perhaps you count its inversion, exemplified in the recent fad that requires hip restaurants in Union Square to authenticate their heirloom tomatoes by featuring their delivery (complete with muddy-booted farmer) through the dining room instead of at the kitchen door, as if the delivery were a kind of dinner theater – perhaps a morality play in which the farmer represents Sustainability.
Anyway, I couldn’t really tell if the ducks lived up to their pedigree. I was too distracted by the accompanying pancakes, which were out of this world, yellow and eggy rather than the usual floury white, and paper-thin but surprisingly firm to bite.
Perhaps it was fitting that the ducks should have been eclipsed by the pancakes, since they looked a little like representations of a hunter’s moon. And it was fitting on another analogical level that there should be such a correspondence, because I had primed my pupils with a hasty rehearsal of Vachel Lindsay’s poem “The Moon Is The North Wind’s Cooky” so that they could read it aloud for their assorted friends and relations.
The reading fell a bit flat, actually, but I am hopeful that there will be another poem for another season. There’s always more Vachel Lindsay next Moon Festival, I suppose – these same young students should certainly be ready for “The Moon? It Is A Gryphon’s Egg” by next year, even if I am not here to teach it to them.
It’s funny, I always seem to be surprised by the kind of moon celebrated at the Mid-Autumn festival. Of course it’s a harvest moon, golden, low and glowing, but I always find myself expecting a frosty winter moon, remote, high and silver. I have a feeling that this misapprehension stems from the image of the magic toad who is said to live on the moon. He’s called the “silver toad” (银蟾) and I remember first encountering him in a poem celebrating the Moon Festival in Cao Xueqin’s novel “The Dream of the Red Chamber.”
宝婺情孤洁， The Ladystar stands in loneliness unstained,
银蟾气吐吞。 Silver Moontoad gapes and gulps the skyey airs.
(Not a very literal translation, but I hope reasonably faithful if regarded with a tolerant eye.)
I remember being much taken with the idea of a faery toad. Certain animals just seem to signal the uncanny, don’t they, as if they were ambassadors of some shadowy otherworld, and the "silver toad's" association with the moon seemed to exemplify that essential "confluence" of rightness (to borrow from Eudora Welty) that occurs when the various resonances evoked by things and images echo one another.
There were many other dishes as well, including bird’s nest, which I have always wanted to try, various fishes both stewed and raw, straw mushrooms cooked with broccoli, duck feet with mustard sauce, clam broth and batter-fried pumpkin.
Perhaps classic cuisine has a certain universal characteristic, for all these dishes, iconic as they were, reminded me of nothing so much as eating out in Normandy. (Except the pumpkin, which I suppose might have put me in mind of Tuscany, if I had ever been there.) Though the sauces were certainly different for each dish, there was a sameness about them, as if they were different songs all played by the same instrument. In any case, grateful as I was to be invited out to such a splendid feast, it’s not the sort of experience I’d want to repeat too often. I still like chilies best, and I still prefer the sort of "distressful bread" with which Hank Cinq supposed the enviable laborer must be cramm'd.
And if that's a class thing, well, there it is. I'm a Democrat.