There is nothing more gladdening to a homesick student’s heart than the sight of many, many red-lidded jars…all filled to the brim (layers of protective bubble wrap in between) with handmade Lunar New Year goodies. Even better when said homesick student has spent the week shoveling snow in Ithaca while her relatives flood her phone with picture messages of all the glorious treats she’s missing out on. The bastards.
So when she wakes up to find golden, buttery, pineapple jam pastries redolent with cloves, crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth, salty-sweet sugee (semolina) cookies, richly fragrant cashew nut sablés, and miniature pork floss (think candy floss, but made with pig) spring rolls in a giant package at her door, she starts to think a little better of her not-so-heartless-after-all family.
Especially when she knows making those mini spring rolls make shoveling snow look like drinking tea (or some such trifle) in comparison. How mini? Pretty darn close to nano—each roll is made from one-third of a strip of wanton skin, about a one-inch square. On that kind of doll’s house scale, making them involves tweezers, a teensy paintbrush (for brushing with water to get sticky edges), and a very grouchy cousin who (unwillingly, on my aunt’s orders) sacrificed an entire weekend—from sun-up to sun-down—slaving over them.
Like the Russians who measure hospitality by the amount of tablecloth that’s showing, Chinese families believe it absolutely necessary to ply visitors with goodies—especially during the New Year when jars upon jars of treats will mass on coffee tables and spill over onto the floor. Treasure chests with mother-of-pearl inlays reveal drawers of preserved fruit (plums, citrus, ginger, nutmeg, jujubes, etc.) and lazy susans laden with yet more treats beckon. There will often be a buffet table laid out for guests—more food than everyone assembled will be able to make a dent in—all due to the belief that if you start the year with plenty, “the months to come will never bring any want.”
Obviously, with displays like that, competition among the women of the family to set the most bounteous table is inevitable. Each year, malls organize large-scale food fairs where vendors sell the latest trendy treats from around Asia as well as homegrown innovations (durian-anything, pig candy tartlets, etc.). There is much pride in being able to snag x-treat from y-store after having waited in line for eight hours with fellow devotees. Top boasting rights, however, go to the women who’ve taken unpaid leave from work to make their own goodies.
My cousin then has certainly earned the right to revel in her domestic goddess-ness.
But personally (with the care package safe in my greedy paws, and my jaws furiously working on those delectable pork floss rolls), I’m thankful I wasn’t the one messing with tweezers all weekend. Especially since her entire weekend’s work was pretty much demolished in an hour. Then again, guess who has to shovel the driveway tomorrow?
About the author: Wan Yan Ling is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.