Holidays have never exactly been what one would call traditional in my family.
Perhaps it’s for that reason that I’m obsessed with authenticity and origin. There’s a certain amount of cultural disconnect that comes with being a first-generation Asian American growing up in middle Long Island.
A rootlessness as your parents decide what traditions to divorce themselves from, or let slip away for the sake of assimilation and convenience. An even greater dissipation with age as family members move away and create or resurrect traditions of their own.
Having been raised in a Chinese takeout, there were few holidays we got to claim as our own. Thanksgiving was the one day we were closed (for obvious reasons); the other 364 days of the year were fair game and Chinese New Year was no exception. Because the date of the lunar new year changes with the moon, feast night would spring up on us as suddenly as winter snows.
There would be a couple of days of flurried preparation. Dad would rise early to go to Flushing’s fish markets to pick out choice finfish, clams, crabs, lobster, giant prawns, sometimes mussels, conch, abalone, and scallops. He’d return home with bags of exotic vegetables, from silky Shanghai bok choy to verdant pea shoots, bitter Chinese broccoli and slick water spinach. Whole roasted ducks, slabs of pork belly, and soy sauce chicken with a ginger chimichurri for dipping were also among the “necessary” haul. Prosperity and fortune were always the theme, and he filled the table with course after course in an effort to encourage the new year to provide us with such.
The restaurant was always open. We spent more time as a family there than we ever did at home, and with a commercial kitchen at our disposal, it made sense for us to celebrate there as well. But as anyone who’s ever worked in the restaurant industry knows, that means eating during off hours. And for a full-scale meal like a New Year’s feast, that meant waiting until dinner was long over for many. Ten p.m. could not come soon enough.
Chinese food is typically served family style. To accommodate the massive display of dishes, my siblings and I would push tables from the waiting area together toward an inoffensive corner, out of the way. We’d do it with our coats on since the place was never heated, for the sake of the cooks in the back flipping woks over open flames. And we’d keep them on as we ate our quickly chilling food between answering calls for phoned in orders and helping walk-ins.
My dad was always the last to eat. He’d beg us to go ahead and get started as he got all the dishes out; he didn’t want anything to get cold. As food photography became more of a thing, though, his adamancy waned.
Despite a growing enthusiasm for documenting the fruits of his labor, plastic takeout trays still dominated the table since only a handful of old-fashioned, thick porcelain platters were kept at the restaurants. Those were reserved for the roasted Cantonese meats he’d reheat or repurpose into favorites like Peking duck to tuck into sweet, pillowy buns slathered with thick hoisin sauce.
Heat-resistant tin platters you may not have seen since the 70s in wood-paneled Chinese restaurants (or the last time you went camping) were filled with large steamed fish (traditionally for prosperity) served whole in a soy-based sauce and finished with searing hot oil to open up the flavor of the slivered ginger and scallion atop it. Dungeness or local crabs, sliced conch sautéed with stalk-y vegetables in a white sauce, and bite-sized pork ribs fried crisp and dripping with honey and garlic greens took turns over the years in claiming one of these limited-quantity vessels.
Funny tin bowls with scalloped handles held things like clams in oyster sauce, snails in black bean sauce, and clear broth bobbing with an assortment of spongy fish balls, some of which were marinated while others were fat, stuffed with savory pork in the center. Among these golden spheres—symbols for fullness and wealth—were hard-boiled eggs, deep fried to that auspicious color and dropped into the soup.
Every year, one large metal platter was reserved for my family’s personal highlight: a towering pile of succulent lobster. Chopped immediately before cooking into generous bite-sized pieces, dredged lightly in flour, flash-fried, then tossed in a luscious hot dressing of fresh ginger and scallions, this was one of the primary reasons we got our good luck eggs out of the way as quickly as possible … to sooner dive into the shellfish.
If you look up any article at all about what makes a traditional Chinese new year traditional, you’ll find very little resemblance to how my Long Island family celebrated it. This year, in the wake of my parents’ retirement, as we celebrated at home for the first time in my 32 years of life, you’ll find even less as they navigate a new stage of life and transform the customs from their homeland to better fit it.
Stovetop cooking. Sitting down as a family. Silenced phones. Uninterrupted conversation, save for what we share with one another.
These were all new in the year of the rooster, and thusly, even more untraditional. But the beauty in America, I think, is that sometimes, authenticity is individual to oneself. Personally, I probably know less about what “real” Chinese New Year should be like than non-ethnic counterparts. But the way my family has celebrated it has been my truth, making perhaps a lack of traditionalism traditional to us.
This story was originally published in February 2017.