Turn! Turn! Turn!

As much as I’m not ready to admit the truth, at this point there is little getting around it: fall has arrived in Chengdu. For two weeks now, I’ve been trying to turn a blind eye to the sure signs popping up all around me, but as the days go on, there is no denying it. There is a season- turn, turn, turn…

Other than the sudden turn in weather, why am I convinced that summer is officially over? One of the surest signs of impending cold is the sudden appearance of tailor-made coat shops all around town. Where one day a boutique shoe store or random fruit stall existed, the following day it is outfitted with all manner of coat material, batting and creepy mannequins displaying this year’s quilted winter coat options. These little stores pop up overnight, acting as fall’s counterpart to Punxsutawney Phil.

And of course, in China, there is no better sign of fall than the ubiquitous moon cakes that sprout up around every turn. No hotel, bakery, coffee shop or department store can slide by this time of year without offering an array of hockey puck-like treats to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival. These uber-dense cakes filled with everything from chopped nuts to red bean paste to egg are a must-give gift for the annual holiday. They can be purchased for as cheap as a couple of kuai each to as much as thousands of kuai for fancy, silk-lined boxes used to gain favor with bosses. (Less than a candy bar or more than my car payment in the US, price on these things doesn’t matter. They are not good. Not good at all.)

Even the uptick in meetings and conference calls about air pollution are a heavy reminder that cold weather (and coal burning!) is just around the corner.

All of this I could ignore though, just blaming the appearance of coats on the turn of the calendar page to September and the requisite moon cakes on the national holiday, but yesterday I saw a sight that popped by mental it’s-not-fall-yet bubble: an old man roasting chestnuts in the alley. There’s no getting around the fact fall has arrived when the old men from the countryside load up their metal cauldrons onto handcarts and haul them into the city to sell chestnuts. In the US, the smell of pumpkin and apple pie and the musty scent of leave piles are what signal to my nose that the holidays are quickly approaching, but in China, nothing frames my mind for the upcoming festivities more than the smell of street-side roasted chestnuts. And they are here.  One roaster has taken up residence in Noodle Alley, a favorite lunch spot for all of us at the consulate and last night I noticed another one on the corner near my apartment complex.  While I can ignore the other tell-tale signs of impending cold, chestnuts roasting on an open fire in Chengdu says all there is to say.

Goodbye summer. Hello autumn.


Moaning About Moon Cakes

In America, around Christmas and the winter holidays, there are always endless jokes about the ubiquitous, yet terrible tradition that is fruitcake. (I will admit from the start, I have never actually tasted a piece of fruitcake. A look at its heavy brown pastry, dotted with candied fruit brings to mind a slab of concrete with large pebbles strewn throughout. Not appetizing in the least.) And while fruitcake may be a uniquely western thing, terrible pastries at a time of celebration are apparently a global phenomenon.

Here in China, the bane of my fall season is a not-so-lovely little treat called the moon cake.

Moon cake shops start to pop up in early September, seemingly overnight. What was once an empty storefront will suddenly be bursting at the seams with fancy, silk-lined boxes of moon cakes, selling for hundreds and even thousands of RMB. Usually these fly-by-night stores also have a variety of bin-cakes, some wrapped, some not, selling on an individual basis. (It is the Chinese version of WinCo Supermarket bins, down to the fact that people dig through them barehanded. I didn’t dare buy goods out of the open grocery store bins in Idaho and I don’t dare do it here!)

These omnipresent snacks are a part of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival. This fall celebration is a popular harvest festival recognized by the Chinese government as an official holiday, meaning all official businesses are closed, schools are closed and many people go on vacation for an entire week. (It’s like a national spring break, but in the fall, and minus the uber-drunk, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini-clad college students.

Mid-Autumn Festival dates back over 3,000 years to the ancient times of moon worship in China’s Shang Dynasty. I’m pretty sure some of those original moon cakes are still floating around this place, as they don’t seem to have, or need, expiration dates. (Chinese version of the Twinkie?) While it is also sometimes referred to as the Moon Cake Festival, this is less common, but, it does make me think that maybe we should rechristen Christmas and Fruitcake Festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, which is usually around late September or early October on the Western calendar. It is a date that parallels the autumnal equinox of the solar calendar, when the moon is supposedly at its fullest and roundest. The traditional food of this festival is the moon cake, of which there are many different varieties, and yet none that I want to eat. Whether it is the type with an entire cooked egg yolk in the middle or the one made of five different nuts, none of them are appealing. And this is coming from someone who has a deeply-ingrained love of pastries. Last week, I got two care packages from the States, one from my best friend Shannon and the other from by parents. Both boxes had a variety of goodies inside, but the one place their overlapped was in their containment of chocolate pudding pies. (Together, they could make one of the best Venn Diagrams known to man!) So I am no slouch when it comes to the consumption of sweet treats, but when I bite through the thick breading that makes up the outer layer of the goodie, only to find I have a mouth full of mashed red bean paste, I don’t consider that a win in my book

In the Middle Kingdom, Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important holidays of the year; a time when, traditionally, farmers would celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season. Customarily on this day, Chinese family members and friends will gather together to admire the bright mid-autumn harvest moon and eat moon cakes under the moon. (As much as I dislike the dense, hockey-puck-like pastries, they really are all the rage here! I even bought a small package of them for my ayi as a thank-you for her wonderful housekeeping skills

With Mid-Autumn Festival right around the bend and moon cakes on every corner, I’ll be on a mini-blogging hiatus as I head to Bangkok for a week of CLO Training, (I need to find out how to CLO better!) and then on to the wedding of a good friend in Guizhou. I’ll be back with tales of Thailand and continued adventures while In Search of the End of the Sidewalk after Columbus Day.

Until then, 中秋节快乐!Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Colorful moon cakes for my ayi