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Charity’s Column: The Year of the Dragon

In the dead of winter, I dream of a party in Florida, specifically one I attended in the late 60s when I was nine. My mother was a professor at the University of Florida, and since most of her English-as-a-Second-Language students were Chinese, our family got invited to a Lunar New Year party.  I think it was The Year of the Monkey.

That party made a deep impression on me — large tables laden with wonderfully fragrant and completely unfamiliar dishes, pyramid-shaped piles of oranges and candied kumquats and someone’s uncle wearing a dragon’s head mask chasing us children, as we ran around grabbing candy.

Over time, that party became my celebration lodestar, the perfect combination of old family, new friends, great food, and a little bit of superstition. 

My sisters and my parents had fun too, so my mother learned to cook a few Chinese dishes, adding sweet and sour pork, and peanut noodles to the parade of our family’s celebration foods.

We’d start with Halloween cupcakes, continue through the pecan pies of Thanksgiving, the sizzling latkes of Hanukah, enjoy our plum pudding and Christmas cookies, and roll right into the exotic treats of our Chinese New Year celebration in late January or early February.

The best part about celebrating the Lunar New Year is that just when you are about to despair about the end of merry making, here it comes in the dead of winter to pick you up and wrap you in some long, tasty noodles. When the Lunar New Year begins this Saturday, February 10, I’ll be welcoming the Year of the Dragon.

In most Asian cultures, the celebration of the Lunar New Year is much more than the familiar American New Year’s Eve bash followed by a hangover and black-eyed peas. It’s a two-week series of parties to celebrate birthdays, as well as the year just passed and the one to come.

Every year is assigned one of 12 animals of the zodiac, and your animal (I’m a dog-woman) is determined by the year of your birth. If you know anyone expecting to give birth after Saturday, they will be bringing forth a dragon, which is very good luck.

In 1986, my husband and I were newlyweds, and traveled to China. As I got a better look at the country and its people, I realized that many of the values of traditional Chinese culture, such as a reverence for education and teaching, and a preoccupation with food and the art of cooking, were values I shared.

I think it was around that time that we started observing the Lunar New Year tradition at home. I found a dragon’s head mask, made several hundred dumplings, arranged pyramids of citrus fruit, and invited people over.

At some point I started calling our celebration Lunar New Year, instead of Chinese, when I learned that the holiday is celebrated by Chinese, Mongolian, Korean, Tibetan, and Vietnamese folks, and each culture adapts the rituals to their own foods and customs.

Over 30 years, the Sino-Robey Lunar New Year rituals have evolved. In the 1990s and 2000s, we used to get a crowd of youngsters, so I’d set up a dumpling-making station, and boy, was that a fine mess. Now my sons are old enough not to need supervision in food preparation, and the older one makes scallion pancakes at the party, which is still a fine mess.

I’ve gotten bolder in experimenting with dumpling stuffing and dipping sauces. I’ve expanded my repertoire to include gluten-free and vegan dumplings (the secret is tofu.)  I’ve learned to never put a steamy basket of dumplings down on a wood table. (Anyone want to strip and refinish the cherry dining table in my basement?)

I’ve learned that those colorful trays of dried fruit you buy in Chinatown are purely decorative, and woe to the unwary party goer who tries to eat a candied lotus root like a cookie. It does not crumble.

Occasionally, Asian friends give me pointers, more noisemakers, no sunflowers, spring flowers only. Don’t cut the noodles and serve the fish whole (for longevity and family unity.) Grateful for suggestions, I especially like the rituals that make this party more meaningful, and more reflective of our values.

The same values we share with every other Lunar New Year partyer out there dancing with a paper mache dragon on their head to make the children laugh, banish the old year and welcome spring.