Auntie Harriet, my mother and I were seated at “table four” in the main dining room in the Imperial Dynasty restaurant. We had been lingering over the staff’s family meal (spareribs with black bean sauce and rice) and a making list of chores and cleaning activities that would occur the following week when the Imperial Dynasty would close for Chinese New Year. Usually my mother was in charge of coordinating the schedules as Auntie Harriet, Uncle Richard and Auntie Mary generally spent their New Year vacation time out of town. We were interrupted when Auntie Harriet was called away to take a phone call.
“He said that I was the best boss he ever had,” Auntie Harriet said as she returned to her seat, her face awash with emotion. It was the beginning of Chinese New Year and a former employee had called from Michigan to pay his respects and offer holiday greetings.
That memory recently popped into my head as I was making my “to-do” list for the upcoming Chinese New Year. Traditionally Chinese New Year is a 15-day celebration beginning on the first lunar new moon and ending on the full moon. In her book, “Good Luck Life,” Rosemary Gong writes, “ Considered the most significant of holidays, the New Year integrates the themes of family, friends, home, and food. It’s time to put resolution and respect to practice and seek fortune, prosperity, longevity, happiness, and health.
“The days leading up to Chinese New Year are fraught with flurry. In preparation for the lunar New Year, the family readies itself by tossing out the old and welcoming the new. The countdown begins with a chronological order of activities beginning with the Kitchen God ritual and moving on to the practice of settling old debts, readying the home, buying new clothes, and feasting to the family’s content.” Rosemary then offers advice and planning lists for Chinese New Year.
Our lists were a little bit different than Rosemary’s when the Imperial Dynasty was still operating. My mother’s lists for Chinese New Year celebration consisted of a schedule of cleaning crews, repairmen and painters who would occupy the restaurant while it was closed for the holiday. Back then my list consisted of coordinating her lists and organizing a meal or two.
During the past few years my Chinese New Year lists have included the Taoist Temple Preservation Society’s Chinese New Year celebration and at least one or two traditional rituals — offering food and flowers to my ancestors and wearing a bit of red clothing — along with my China Alley Chinese New Year ritual of paying homage to all of the early Chinese pioneers by lighting incense and walking up and down the Alley. And organizing a meal or two.
This year Chinese New Year falls on Feb. 8. It will be the year of the Fire Monkey (sometimes called the Red Monkey) According to Fengshuiform.com: “Monkey years are exciting years when creativity and innovation are rewarded. Fire Monkey years are considered high-energy years. Being adaptable to new circumstances will be an asset this year.” I trust this bodes well for China Alley.
As mentioned earlier, feasting is a big part of the celebration. I love the symbolism certain food or dishes signify during the holiday meals. For instance one might serve long Chinese string beans for longevity along with whole fish. The Chinese word for whole fish is “yu” and sounds similar for the word for abundance. Dumplings and eggrolls are shaped like old gold ingots and, it is believed, eating them may bring prosperity.
This week I am sharing a recipe, with Chinese food symbolism in mind, for the New Year. It’s a roast chicken, served whole and carved at the table; serving or cooking the chicken in pieces would be considered “broken.” The whole chicken signifies prosperity, family togetherness and joy. Oranges add a layer of flavor to the dish and represent sweetness, wealth, good fortune and gold. This chicken is also mighty tasty.
I wish all of you a healthy and abundant Year of the Fire Monkey and that it will be filled with countless delightful and scrumptious meals shared with family and friends.
Oh, it’s true. Auntie Harriet was the best boss. Ever.