Monday, January 13, 2014

Now in Gastronomica: the Kitchen God, Cinderella, and hungry ghosts

(In the Winter 2013 of Gastronomica is my article, "The Kitchen God of Chinese Lore." Hey Ma, I made the cover of GastronomicaI feel a song coming on as I channel Dr. Hook...)

The winter air churns billows of gray smoke and blackened flakes up over the Chinese courtyard and into the evening sky. Light catches on specks of red, gold, and green as the cinders swirl, sending the Kitchen God on his annual journey to report on the family’s activities and ensure blessings for the months to come.

The Kitchen God of traditional lore is sort of like Saint Nick in that he keeps careful score of who has been naughty and who has been nice. His picture is inevitably pasted to a wall near the stove for a whole year, a place where he can observe and take note of the family’s activities. The Kitchen God is there simply to watch and report. 

But then there is that inevitably wonderful Chinese twist: just before he is about to submit his report to the Supreme Being, the family makes very sure he is not only paid off with gifts, but his mouth is also sealed with a bit of sticky sweetness so that nobody will ever hear the truth of what went on within their four walls.

All year long, two red strips on either side of the Kitchen God remind him of what will be expected: “Say good things when you go up to the heavens and bring good fortune when you return to this abode.” As he watches silently near the stove for twelve months—errant tendrils of steam corrugating the paper and the occasional drop of flying grease spattering his simple unframed visage—he is privy to everything that goes on. He then gathers all that is good or bad into a list, one that the family hopes to turn into a non-report. 

A week before the end of the old lunar year, as he is sent on his annual journey to visit the Jade Emperor, those wisps of burned paper offerings remind the Kitchen God of where his friends and loyalties lie. He is given a new set of paper clothes in order to appear appropriately magnificent in front of the head deity of Taoist (i.e., folk) creed, make-believe gold and silks are prepared to send him off in style, sometimes even a horse is provided, and massive handfuls of funerary offerings called hell notes are set aflame as a sort of legal tender to smooth the way in the spirit world.

The dollop of maltose that coats his lips bursts into a blazing puff of smoke as the image of the Kitchen God is consumed in the fire. Ensuring that he says nothing but sweet words in the event that he ever manages to pry his lips open, the air is perfumed with the scent of roasted marshmallows and burning paper...

[Read the rest in the Winter 2013 issue of Gastronomica; be sure and check out the fun endnotes, where you will find the original Cinderella story--nope, Perrault didn't come up with it on his own, but rather co-opted it from a beautiful Chinese tale--and how to properly deal with hungry ghosts.]

Painting by Carolyn Phillips, Copyright (c) 2012