In the years when we had kids around the house, the highlight of Chinese New Year was the handing out of red envelopes. Children went from adult to adult wishing them a prosperous and happy new year, and the adults rewarded the kids with an envelope of money. When Clare was young, she’d get a few dollars from the people she did not know well and made a haul from aunts, parents, and grandparents.
Now, with kids out of the picture, the biggest part of Chinese New Year is the food. This year, we hosted two big meals. One was on Saturday. The other was on Monday. The plan had been 1) to eat a big meal on Saturday so Clare could come up from Madison to join us without taking a day off work, and then 2) to feast again on Monday, because it was the actual New Year’s Eve. Three days before we were expecting Clare, she called to say she wouldn’t make it. Her roommate had tested positive for COVID, and Clare was sequestering herself until she tested negative two consecutive times.
Even though Clare couldn’t join us on Saturday, Manyu had already prepared a lot of food, so we invited a married couple from the Chinese American community to help us eat it. They marveled at all of the food Manyu had spent the previous week preparing (e.g., peppery salt chicken, lion’s head soup, luo buo gao made from scratch). They enthusiastically dove into every new dish brought to the table. The husband of the couple was, like me, a white guy from Wisconsin, but years of marriage to a Chinese woman had trained his taste buds to enjoy authentic Chinese cuisine.
Then on Monday, we hosted two of my card playing buddies and their wives. The Monday guests were novices to the Chinese New Year’s dining experience. The overriding lesson of the two evenings was that authentic Chinese food is an acquired taste. Monday was epitomized by one of my friends jokingly stating he’d pass on one of the seafood offerings because he avoided anything with tentacles. Also the Monday meal included forks among the eating utensils, whereas Saturday had been all chopsticks. My very non-Chinese friends had a great time and found several dishes delicious (e..g, the pineapple shrimp was almost gone before I had a chance to take any), but they were more hesitant than our Saturday guests about trying everything Manyu brought out from the kitchen.
Another interesting thing about the Monday dinner was that our Western guests stopped eating every time Manyu left the table to put the final touches on another dish. They had an especially hard time at the very beginning of the meal when Manyu said, “Please start eating while the shrimp and tofu are hot. I’ll be right in.” Common courtesy (and these are pretty rough guys who are not slaves to etiquette) would not allow them to eat when their host was not seated. Our friends from the Chinese American community, on the other hand, never stopped putting food in their mouths, knowing full well that Manyu was going to be jumping up and down most of the night.
I enjoyed both nights very much, but put on weight from just those two meals. I have a bet with Clare that I will lose ten pounds by May, and now I have only twelve pounds to go.
* I intentionally titled this blog entry Chinese New Year and not Lunar New Year. I understand the reason for the less specific name for the holiday (many non-Chinese cultures along the Pacific Rim also celebrate the holiday), but Manyu is Taiwanese, and we commemorate the holiday with traditions specific to Chinese culture. Chinese New Year feels like the right term for the way we celebrate.