Thoughts & Musings
With the arrival of spring comes the Qingming Festival, and Show's reminiscence about some old times.
[Click here to read Show's previous column on Fusion cuisine.]
Raising a Glass to Mom on Qingming Festival
Qingming - Clear and Bright - China’s festival for mourning and remembrances falls on April 5th each year. On this occasion, folks back home pay tribute to ancestors, following a formalized custom since Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Dynasty, 732 A.D. They sweep the graves clean, clear off winter debris, and offer good wishes that come with the spring. When my paternal grandmother paid her respect to paternal grandpa, she also used to put out fruits and delicacies before his photo on a table. She’d bow to him, and ask my brother and me to kowtow to him, before splashing a cup of clear water on the floor in conclusion. My brother and I used to wait impatiently for grandma to complete her motions, and dash for the treats as soon as she’d lay her cup back on a saucer.
On this year’s Qingming, I fell into a muse about my journey with gastronomy. I recalled my first encounter with alcoholic drink at nine by way of a feast with mom. As the youngest of five children, the “apple” in mom’s eyes, I used to tag along whenever she entertained, whether it was giving a special meal at home or banqueting with dad at a favorite restaurant in Beijing. Always sitting by her, I got to taste everything she’d set her mind on. When she was really having fun, mom would have a shot of Mao Tai, a 140-proof national spirit, the counterpart of the Russian Vodka, that was made primarily of sorghum out of my dad’s hometown province, Guizhou. Rated the loftiest of the Chinese brews, Mao Tai was what the People’s Republic’s first Premier Zhou An-lai had in his shot glass when he toasted President Nixon at the Great Hall of the People on his historic visit to China in 1971.
I don’t know how Mom had picked up her passion for Mao Tai, but as a “foodie,” it seemed inevitable that she should have taken up the best there was of China’s liquors. But for her, the life as a foodie had not always been easy. Mom used to talk about one life-changing event which derailed her pursuit of all things gourmet for over a decade.
It happened in the mid 1930s. The Japanese army was sweeping across half of China from Mudken (Shenyang), the capital of its puppet state Manchukuo in northeast China, through Peking (Beijing), and advancing swiftly into Shanghai, all without running into much resistance from the Chinese government at the time. Fearing for his daughter’s safety, Grandpa, a railroad engineer with what I understand to be the Central Pacific Railroad Company, sent a letter from San Francisco. He ordered mom, a college sophomore, to vacate Shanghai and immigrate to the United States. It must have been an extraordinary opportunity from grandpa’s perspective, given the hostile environment in America at that time under the Chinese Exclusion Act. So when mom decided instead to join the communists and left for the rebels’ base in the mountain caves at Yen’an, a rural county in northwest Sha’anxi province, grandpa disowned her in a rage. But this path of personal sacrifice was a decision many young patriotic intellectuals chose from the mid-1930s through the 1940s in order to fight Japan’s invasion.
Life was challenging materially at Yen’an. At this new operating base, established after they had fought off the Nationalist army’s five successive military campaigns in two years and completed the 25,000 li (roughly 7763 miles) Long March from the south of the Yangzi River, all the time with the government’s army on their flank or tail, the rebel patriots were faced with starvation. Food sources from outside had been cut off, although the situation eased up somewhat briefly after the Xian Incident forced the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek to agree temporarily to fight the Japanese army. So mom and youths like her tilled the land, and lived off whatever the arid and stony hills in this part of the country could yield. Her daily diet consisted at best of a rationed fill of millet. It was during this time when she began to dream about having some of the simplest satisfying meals she used to enjoy in Shanghai.
One day, a package of goodies arrived from America. What timing, she’d thought! Did grandpa have a change of heart about her? No matter. Enjoy the delicious treats that bedazzled her eyes first, she decided. So she invited a few hungry friends to share them at a hide-out at the top of a hill. “In one sitting, we ate them all,” she recalled with laughter, till they felt so stuffed that they could not straighten to sit up! Just a few days later, she learnt that the gift had been sent to the wrong person. All she could do as remedy was apologize to a girl with an identical name.
When life returned to normal for mom and dad after 1949, now both working in Beijing, mom resumed her pursuit of all things gourmet. Guangdong and Sichuan restaurants were two favorites for entertaining - she being a Cantonese and he inheriting his parents’ heritage from Guizhou and Sichuan. When her busy work schedule permitted, she’d cook up a storm. It was during one of those unforgettable dinners, a result of her culinary gymnastics, that she introduced me to Mao Tai.
“Want to taste it?” she teased, but meaning it as an encouragement. Mom wanted me to love trying everything, like she did. If I’d eat adventurously, her thinking went, I’d get more nutrition. Then, I’d grow up healthy. I nodded eagerly, inured with gastronomic risk-taking. So she dipped a chopstick into her shot glass, lifted its moistened tip, and let a liquid bead drop right into my open mouth. I grimaced as the potent liquor dribbled down my throat, sending ripples of shock to each of my taste buds. At that, mom burst out her signature chortle. She was so easy to please.
It’s been decades since my first adventure with alcohol. Growing up, I learnt to appreciate though never dabbled much in the traditional Chinese liquors. Now, a gourmet myself, I’m experimenting with wine. Sweet memories of mom return whenever I fill my glass. On this Qingming, I raise a glass to mom. It was for cleansing the dust from the urn holding her ashes at a special Babaoshan Cemetery in West Beijing, and for celebrating another fresh spring here in the New England country town of Groton.