mooncake festival!

It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival. Depending on your historical inclinations, you’re either remembering ancient moon worship and sacrifice, recounting the story of moon goddess Chang’e, or going Tang-litterati and appreciating the moon. You may even know about the anti-Yuan uprising that Han nationalist, Liu Bowen organized by inserting the message “on 8.15 the uprising will start” in mooncake gifts. Apparently, the revolt was successful, and future first emperor of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang ordered his advisors and troops to celebrate by distributing and eating mooncakes with the common folk.

Historical inclinations, notwithstanding, the point of the Mid-Autumn Festival chez Shenzhen is giving mooncakes to family and friends. There are traditional double yolk lotus seed paste mooncakes, green tea vegan mooncakes, and fruit paste filled iced mooncakes. There are Cantonese style mooncakes and northern mooncakes, healthy mooncakes and fusion mooncakes. In fact, every major hotel, restaurant and chain, including Starbucks and Haagan Daaz sell their own mooncakes.

All this to say, mooncakes are big, big amazingly packaged business. One can buy individual cakes starting at 7 yuan a piece, or a box of four for 60-70 yuan. But in the big hotels, the packaging escalates. There are heavy cardboard boxes and embossed tins, and often the more expensive sets will include tea. At this level, prices for ordinary boxes of four start around 175 yuan and can go up to over 1,000 yuan. I’ve even seen (but not touched), mooncake sets priced over 2,000 yuan.

Once all the mooncakes have been distributed (and redistributed– the boxes circulate among family and friends until you receive the kind of mooncake you actually want to eat), just as the opening and enjoyment of mooncakes begin, the news media and weixin begin to alert us to mooncake ethics. Mooncakes are so overpriced relative to the cost of ingredients ( flour, lard, sugar, a bit of paste and maybe an egg or two), that by giving them to friends or eating them ourselves, we’re either participating in conspicuous levels of unseemly consumption or are in danger of eating “fake” mooncakes. Indeed, one of the most persistent mooncake rumors is that some company is selling last year’s mooncakes which have been beautifully packaged but have already gone bad.

Today, I’m preparing to go out and eat my share of mooncakes, with as much moderation as possible. Western blogs remind us that the average mooncake has 800-1,200 caleries. The Chinese press has been more explicit: one mooncake is the equivalent of eating three bowls of rice, and neither mooncakes nor rice are packed with nutrition. And yet. There they are, sticky sweet temptations in the middle of a table. And I succumb every year.

Happy, happy Mooncake Festival!

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