Thursday, October 1, 2009

Moon Cakes For Military Might in China

China's Communist regime celebrated its 60th birthday on October 1 with a massive parade of rolling tanks, missile launchers, lines of soldiers and moon cakes.

That’s right, moon cakes, or round pastries filled with salty or sweet fillings -- red bean paste, or hard-boiled eggs or a mix of fruit and nuts.

Eating the dense seasonal treat, often with Chinese tea to cut the fat, is also timed this year with Harvest Moon Night, an autumn, harvest type celebration that falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month when the moon is highest and brightest in the sky.

The occasion allows farmers to give thanks for their harvest and to pray to the moon for protection and prosperity.

Recall the man on the moon and you get a hint of the lunar symbolism.

Moon cakes, being high in cholesterol, also serve to bring families together in that you can hardly eat one on your own. Instead, the cakes are cut into four or eight pieces, and become part of a fall tuan yuan, or family reunion.

So pastry shops, supermarkets and restaurants in China and the Chinese diaspora worldwide will break out the moon cakes for a rare confluence in 2009 of the October 1 National Day holiday and the Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival, which takes place on October 3.

Thwack-thwack-thwack! is to be heard in Chinese bakeries, as bakers prepare a sweet dough for placement in custom molds, next to be filled with choice filings.

In China’s Kuming province, Yunnan TV reported that nearly 97% of local mooncakes are up to standard after inspection by food safety inspectors, compared to 90% last year.

The molds, with indentations, identity in Chinese characters what type of fillings are in the pastry delicacies. After being gingerly lifted from the molds, the moon cakes are packed in square boxes for sale and consumption.

Favorite fillings include coconut, lotus seed paste and black bean paste.

Biting in a moon cake evokes thoughts of home, or autumn harvest if you’re in the Chinese countryside, and military might if your Proustian moment includes exhaust fumes from all those tanks rolling along Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace, in front of president Hu Jintao, to celebrate China’s National Day.

Which is as it should be because moon cakes eaten during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival has its origins, according to legend, in a 14th century battle to overthrow China’s Mongolian rulers.

At the tail end of the Yuan Dynasty A.D. (1280-1368), Hans rebels had to figure out how to mount an insurrection to overthrow the foreign rulers without detection. They settled on the moon cake, knowing the Harvest Moon festival was nearing and that Mongolians didn’t eat the pastry delicacy.

So they ordered a full batch of moon cakes and inserted into each a message warning of an attack on the night of the Moon Festival. The uprising on August 15, with the moon high and bright in the sky, proved successful and it became a tradition to eat moon cakes during the mid-Autumn festival to recall the victory over the Mongolians.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bastille Day: the French Pause for a Summer Picnic

How big a battle-inspired holiday becomes over time depends in large part on which turning point in an historical conflict a people chooses to isolate and celebrate. Take the French. You have to hand it to them. It’s July 14, Bastille Day. And the French see the birth of their nation in a jail break from a poorly-protected prison. And for that they annually take a day off and take part in military parades and fireworks and communal and family meals.

Talk about a calendar day as a political tool for nation-building.

The French didn’t come to framing their nation's birth in the storming of a prison overnight. Instead, the political left in France has long argued that the French Revolution got its start in 1789 with the Bastille break-out as that event saw the common people take their destiny into the their own hands and finally overthrow the Old Regime and the yoke of oppression.

And with that, the First Republic of France rose from the ruins of a toppled monarchy.

The political right, by contrast, maintains the French Revolution started well before July 14, 1789, with the increasing corruption of the Old Regime eventually causing the overthrow of the nobility by the emerging middle classes. Here the crowds gathering round the Bastille prison in July 1789 are but a sideshow that, while lending its name to France’s holiday with accompanying festivals and picnics, is well wide of the mark to explain the roots and results of the country’s defining revolution.

Whatever that protest from the right, the benefits to the left from focusing on the storming of the Bastille over all other stages of the French Revolution designates the festive holiday's much-needed hero: the common man, the sans culottes and peasantry ready rising up against corrupt power for justice and liberty.

We've seen retroactive hero worship elsewhere in this blog, with Moses and Napoleon, figures in their respective people's memory invested with superhuman powers that, as mere mortals, they may well have never claimed for themselves.

Martial holidays often spotlight not the outcome of an historic battle or struggle, but instead circle back to prior dramatic events for symbolism. Examples might be Paul Revere’s dramatic midnight ride, Daniel being saved in the lion’s den or Jesus Christ on the cross.

Here you get to, in Winston Churchill’s immortal summation of a victorious Egyptian campaign in 1942, “the end of the beginning,” a tipping point worthy of celebration and commemoration.

And July 14, 1789 is one of those days, and events. Indeed, Bastille Day has gone mainstream. Its roots date back to a year after the original event, with the Fête de la Fédération held on July 14, 1790. Official French celebrations in Paris had to wait until June 30, 1878, and the Third Republic of France on July 14, 1879 commemorated for the first time the prison break that was Bastille Day on July 14, 1789. And with military processions now a part of the festive celebrations, Benjamin Raspail introduced legislation on July 6, 1880 to make July 14 of that day officially Bastille Day.

On July 14, 1889, as it happened, 22,295 French mayors gathered in Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison with a giant feast that comprised Rouen duck loaf, chicken from Bresse and ballottine of pheasant.

It is said waiters had to ride bicycles to reach the mayors over four miles of tables.

Food-wise, July 14 has no prescribed food as, being a summer holiday, revelers generally take to the outdoors. So the French are loathe to eat food too fancy or time-consuming to make. Think French bistro and brasserie fare, which is fitting as the Bastille Day is widely believed to have given the modern-day French restaurant its start. After all, as the old regime nobility lost their heads or fled the country as the French Revolution gathered steam, their former cooks saw an opportunity to open restaurants and feed the masses.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Where Patriotism Becomes The Icing on the Cake

When it comes to food and battle symbolism, the flag cake takes the cake.

As the Fourth of July nears, nothing says red, white and sweet more than mom and the kids plonking down blueberries in white icing for stars and arranging strawberries in rows for stripes.

Around this time, Canadians also get busy in the kitchen baking a flag cake from scratch for July 1, Canada’s birthday. This time, sliced strawberries or cherries help fashion a maple leaf pattern on a white icing cake.

And the French, for whom Marie Antoinette famously said “Let them eat cake!” – or brioche, depending on your tolerance for historical inaccuracy – they’ll be arranging their berries in vertical blocks – one-third blueberries, one-third plain white icing and one-third strawberries -- come Bastille Day on July 14.

Whatever your nationality, show your pride on your independence day with icing. Beyond the sugar rush, and a lesson in cake decoration, you get a window on the relationship between food ingredients and battle-earned freedom and nation-hood. It's like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Mom takes the ingredients off of the shelf and places them on the table. The kids measure out the portions, and add them to separate bowls for dry and wet ingredients. After mom completes a silver white cake, the history lesson begins. As the blueberries are arranged in rows in the top-left hand corner, with spaces left so the white icing resembles stars to signify the 13 colonies, mom recalls how America separated from Great Britain. Here the red strawberries, cut in half and arranged in rows across the cake, signify stripes of freedom.

The trick is to see past the assembled food ingredients to what they represent. Suddenly, something you normally run up the flagpole – a cloth with stars and stripes – lands on the dining room table, complete with forks and napkins.

Fruit and frosting just as easily kindles loyalty, honor and patriotism in British hearts, courtesy of the pastry bag, pipe or spatula, and select red and blue-colored fruit.

The possibilities of visual rhetoric are endless, whether in Mexico, where kiwi may be used represent the green, cinnamon for the eagle, and candy sprinkles for the details, or Jamaica, where options include banana for the yellow, kiwi for the green and black cherries for the black.

There’s equal variety in food ingredients required: berries, candies, sugars, icing, chocolate and fondants. And you’ll need to decide on the cake style, whether from Europe where cake is generally covered with a smooth icing and then decorated on top or around the border, or a ladder-style Victorian cake typical of weddings.

My favorite is the Lambeth style, where icings and fondants are layered, and applied using a piping bag for elaborate presentation.

You’ll decide how much complexity in decoration you want. Trying to represent the fleur-de-lis, or tricolors, takes some imagination.

That said, you’ll have a familiar flag to work from. Friends and family won’t question what you were trying to say, as if you created a piece of art. They’ll know what the cake says, because it signifies a flag, and by extension independence, freedom and, in many parts of the world, democracy.

Flag cakes also underline the principle that, over time, differences between peoples and nations, friends and foe, decrease and ultimately get reduced to a holiday-sanctioned day off and a pig out that everyone can enjoy.

That process happens in stages, however. And as nations generally adopt a new flag during a time of independence, which follows a battle or war with winners and losers, expect varied reactions to your flag cake. To some, it will invite patriotic fervor, to others possibly antipathy, and even disgust. For example, a U.S. northerner might well find a Confederate flag cake offensive. And you won’t find a swastika cake in Tel Aviv, nor in Passau, hopefully.

Clearly, one man’s flag cake is another man’s defeat and humiliation.

And while flag burning is forbidden, the morality of carving up a flag cake and mushing pieces into your mouth, or tipping leftovers into the garbage, is largely unexplored.

Nor do food conglomerates hesitate to profit from this patriotic culinary fad. Breyers ice cream, a division of Unilever, knows which side of the cake is iced. Its “Breyers Ice Cream Flag Cake” recipe for the Fourth of July predictably calls for two separate tubs of its vanilla and chocolate ice cream, fresh fruit and whipping cream.

You can even buy a flag cake pan for the Fourth of July to ensure the flag shape and 13 indentations so you get the stars for the original colonies in the right place.

It’s a peace of cake, really.

Etan Vlessing

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Evacuation Day Nearly Leaves Town

Who doesn’t love Evacuation Day? Boston City Council, apparently.

You may have recognized by now an oft-stated lament in this blog that once-proud holidays born of struggle and feasting have over time been reduced to little more than a day off of work, with little regard or observance for the past.

So it’s worth noting that Boston City Council only narrowly voted to keep its Evacuation and Bunker Hill days as floating holidays for around 35,000 Suffolk County employees, after it threatened to cancel the holiday slate to save taxpayer dollars in hard times. The Beacon Hill pols managed a resolution of support for the June 17 Bunker Hill holiday and the earlier March 17 Evacuation Day observance "so our citizens may reflect and remember the sacrifices of those who gave gone before us."

How quickly they forget March 17, 1776, when a British naval fleet sailed out of Boston harbor on route to Halifax, Nova Scotia. That came 11 months after the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 15, 1775. After a long siege, British troops were finally allowed to leave Boston harbor, within incident or injury. The anniversary of this date is conveniently celebrated by the Irish American (and other) residents of Boston and Suffolk County on March 17.

Truly, when Evacuation Day, which celebrates the evacuation of British forces from Boston on March 17, 1776, is judged non-essential, then the observance of American history has truly come to a sorry pass. Especially when it comes to Irish-Americans, for whom March 17 is also St. Patrick’s Day, a convenient coincidence and a reminder when they gave the boot to the British redcoats.

That tie to St. Patrick’s Day may well explain why Evacuation Day survives in Boston but has long since lapsed among New Yorkers who once marked the holiday on November 25, the day the defeated British army left that city’s shores in 1783.

Indeed, the conquering general of the day, George Washington, held a famous victory feast to celebrate the departure of the British at Capes Tavern at Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. Besides the usual delicacies like lamb, oysters, Virginia ham and deserts, Washington and his merrymaking officers downed 133 bottles of Madeira port and claret wine. According to the food historian Mary Donovan in her Thirteen Colonies Cookbook.

It turns out Evacuation Day early on became a convenient holiday for Brahmins in Boston and New York City to hold popular parades and private dinners where they proclaimed their respect for the sacrifices of the American revolutionary war, and projected their own political and economic power.

Historian Cliftoon Hood recounts that, by the mid-1790s, Evacuation Day in New York City had settled into an annual calendar holiday with parades and rituals, so much so that newspapers of the day reported that the Evacuation Day celebration passed off "as usual" or "with the usual military honor."

The emotion and revelry that surrounded Evacuation had long ebbed by the time of the holiday’s 100th anniversary, and it wasn’t until 1901 that Evacuation Day became a legal holiday in Boston. A year later on March 17, 1902, Boston dedicated the Dorchester Heights monument in Irish south Boston. And in Suffolk County, Evacuation Day became an official holiday, with school and government offices closed.

But in 2009, 226 years after the British redcoats took their leave of Boston, Evacuation Day has largely been forgotten in New York City, and nearly came to an unceremonious end in Suffolk County.

And with the near demise of this once joyous occasion has gone much of Evacuation Day’s historical memory.

Etan Vlessing

Friday, May 22, 2009

May 21 2009

Memorial Day is here, so it’s time to… clean the swimming pool? Arrange the lawn furniture? Slather the hamburger bun with condiments and break out the beer, wine and spirits?

Hold on! What ever happened to arranging springtime flowers suddenly in bloom on veterans’ graves as Taps is heard wistfully just over the hill? Or teaching kids by example how they should honor those who died to ensure their freedom by observing their names on battlefield tombstones, columns or inscriptions?

I know Americans are urged to pause where they stand at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day each May 26 to recall and honor those who fell in service to the nation. It took then U.S. president Bill Clinton to sign into law on December 28, 2000 the National Moment of Remembrance Act to jog the minds of Americans about nodding their heads to fallen heroes.
After all, due observance for the war dead can hardly be achieved in a hammock, sparking the barbecue or popping open another brewski.

Often it looks like rather than remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, Americans just seize the opportunity to enjoy summer’s first breakout weekend.

For more formal ritual and pageantry to honor the dead, you need to go back to 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, to when Decoration Day was proclaimed to drape war graves with garlands of newly-sprung flowers. It was at the Arlington National Cemetery astride the Potomac that May 30 was proclaimed Decoration Day, to be accompanied by speeches and attendance by leading military generals and politicians.

And young people were urged to show up at cemeteries as well so that they could learn from the examples of fallen heroes.

Soon after the first World War, Memorial Day as it came to be known as expanded to honor the American dead from all that country’s battles over time.

Days to honor the battlefield dead are observed the world over, especially in North America and Europe where the many dead from the first two world wars somberly hit home.

The Dutch also observe their own freedom from the Second World War on May 4, which comes a day before actual liberation from Nazi Germany on May 5, 1945. Israel has its Memorial Day a day before Independence Day, which falls on 5 Iyar, according to the Hebrew calendar, or the anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.

And Australia and New Zealand honor their war dead on April 25, to recall in particular young countrymen who died at Gallipoli during the First World War.

Flower-laying, formal tributes to the dead, parades and pageantry, that’s optional as part of all the above-mentioned holidays. What’s mandatory is taking time out from the workaday world, to gather with friends and family and cook food to be eaten in the house or outside.

And not surprisingly, the nation’s brewers seize the opportunity of May 26 with TV ads and in-store promotions to boost beer sales on Memorial Day, which stands just behind the Fourth of July as the biggest beer holiday of the year.

Nothing goes with patriotism like chugging the suds, it turns out, whether that be micro- or macro-brewed product, or premium or lite brands.

Leave it to beer makers, locked in battle for market share, to roll out those patriotic, nostalgic TV ads this week, you know the ones with crowds applauding returning soldiers, the stars and stripes ever flying in the background.

Why? To position their brand as America's beer. Oh, and to honor the war dead.

That goes without saying. With flowers. Evidently.