Chinese Halloween

Beijing Opera Mask & Jack-O-Lantern
Beijing Opera Mask & Jack-O-Lantern

I taught English at Beijing Foreign Studies University, the largest language university in China some years ago. We, of course, discussed all the holidays in America as they approached. Though Halloween is not typically celebrated in China, my students were fascinated by the idea of it. After much scurrying around, they finally found something that actually looked like a pumpkin, weighed about ten pounds, but was some type of large, yellow winter squash and wanted to carve it as we had discussed in class.  An outing was in order as I didn’t want the mess in the classroom. Off to the Purple Bamboo Park we walked with a picnic lunch and the essentials to carve the “pumpkin” into a Jack-o-Lantern.  They had a great time and a couple of students even brought along Beijing Opera Masks to wear.  It was one of the few sunny days in late autumn, and we sat on blankets and enjoyed carving and being in the sun and practicing our English.  Several strangers came by to see what we were doing and ask questions about this American custom. My students explained all they had learned in class to the casual passers by.

In the evening we put the carved pumpkin with a candle inside in the lobby window of our apartment building and all my other classes came by to trick-or-treat and have cookies, beer and whiskey in our apartment.  While the students were there, several children of the other language teachers in the building came by to trick-or-treat as well.  One didn’t speak English, so my Chinese students taught her how to say “trick or treat” in English.  There were lots of giggles and smiles and excitement when they got goodies at our door. They had improvised costumes as they had heard we were celebrating this  American holiday in our apartment. Luckily I had baked LOTS of cookies.  The chocolate chunk ones were a real favorite with gingersnaps running a close second.

In China, Tomb Cleaning Day would be the closest in intent to Halloween, similar to All Saints Day in Mexico.  The family will come to clean the tomb, offer burned paper money and food, and eat a picnic.  So in a way, the students could relate to the Halloween tradition.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beijing Opera Mask & Jack-O-Lantern

FALL

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It’s Fall

Well after a summer of very grey weather but no rain, fall is here with a blaze of glory.  We have had a very strange year in the maritime Pacific Northwest, here on Puget Sound.  I live on an island in Puget Sound and this morning the fog has rolled in densely and is cocooning us in its wraith-like quality. Certainly appropriate for the up-coming Halloween season.

Yes, it was a very strange summer with few days where the sun shone, but still we had a drought.  By October first the y-t-d rainfall was less than eight inches, a very rare thing in these parts.  It is rare to have a drought and even more rare to have clouds throughout the season that did not bring rain.

Finally about the end of September it started to rain.  And rain it surely has. We are up to almost eleven inches and it is still the middle of October.  It has poured and poured, too late though to make the broadleaf maples turn beautiful colors.  They just got crisp and turned brown, but not so with most of the other deciduous trees which are performing spectacularly now.  It is some of the most beautiful color I can remember.  Too bad the broadleaf maples couldn’t have joined in with their show, but alas, they suffered more than most.  Cedars suffered from the drought as well, sacrificing the top third of their noble visage to conserve water, and a few have died, they being somewhat shallow-rooted.

Another phenomenon we are experiencing is a bumper crop of every kind of mushroom you can imagine including some we haven’t seen in years.  The drought has brought on varieties that require drought in order to “bloom.”  Not only are there rare varieties, but the common ones are standing in abundance in my orchard, flower beds, walkway gravel, in the woods and in the open. One state park here has limited the daily amount you can collect to two gallons! I didn’t even think it was legal to pick anything without permits in state parks.

There is heavy fog this morning and I can hear the ferry “sounding” to detect the echoes from shore.  When I first moved to this island forty-nine years ago there was also a siren that sounded like a police car winding up it siren.  It rang about every thirty seconds.  That is no longer in use and modern technology doesn’t require the ferry to “sound” any longer.  I think he does it to wake up the dock attendant.

Fog can do strange things to acoustics.  There is a railway along the shore of the mainland about three miles from my home.  I can hear the train whistle too.  It “sounds” at most crossings.  It is as loud and clear as the ferry.  If I listen carefully, I can hear the cars getting off the ferry with the clunk-clunk of the wheels on the ramp to the dock.

My rain barrels are full now.  I had emptied them early watering during the drought and had to resort to the old fashioned hose bib to water by early summer. My mint never came up until the rain came in the fall.  Now it is going great guns and mojito season is past, more like hot buttered rum and spiked cider time.

I’m not complaining as the temperatures are still in the fifties and comfortable.  The weeding is much easier now that the ground is wet.  You could hardly pull weeds when the ground was like cement. I enjoy the fog and to me it feels cozy, hiding much of the world and giving me the privacy I once enjoyed when I first moved here, before the hoards discovered that living on an island in Puget Sound is close to paradise.

Experimental Baking for the Holidays

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Not much left.  Just enough for another meal!

 

We were recently invited to dinner for the holidays.  I was to bring dessert.  What kind of holiday dessert could I make?  I decided on a cake, but a different cake than I had baked before.

I have a basic carrot cake recipe that is usually my go to carrot cake.  It is carrots and pineapple and walnuts.  I didn’t have carrots or pineapple in the kitchen when I was getting ready to bake.  I did have yams and applesauce.  Off on a new recipe experiment.  I knew the neighbors would overlook any weirdness this recipe might create.  How would the yams cook?  Would they be tough or chewy?  Would the applesauce be too moist or not moist enough?

The only way to know was to try.  I peeled and then grated the 2 cups of yams just as though they were carrots.  They even looked like carrots when I finished grating them in the food processor.  The apples I had were canned apple slices, so I processed those into applesauce.  I probably could have left some chunks, but I needed the moisture to give the batter the proper consistency.  Otherwise I made the cake just as it is in the recipe.

I mixed it up and the consistency was the same as the regular carrot cake so I popped it in the oven and it even smelled the same while it was baking. It took about the usual time to bake and I took them out and cooled them on racks just as I always do.

When they were cool enough, I was ready to frost them.  My original recipe calls for a cream cheese frosting.  I find it a little heavy, rich and cloying.  Recently I had discovered a two ingredient white chocolate frosting that is much lighter, just white chocolate and whipping cream. I used that.

When it was frosted, I sprinkled it with red sugar sprinkles, tucked in some winter greenery and I had a holiday cake to take and celebrate with the neighbors.

The resulting taste?  Fantastic.  Ever as good as the carrot version and more “holiday” in the ingredients.  I think the next time I make it I will add dried cranberries (craisins), as well, to make it even more festive.  Not only is it good for the December holidays, but appropriate for Thanksgiving too.

The results just reinforced for me, experiment! You will have a new product that doesn’t require a special trip to the store ( I had all the ingredients on hand) and tastes great.  Try it sometime.