The tray of togetherness: Sweet blessings for Lunar New Year delight family, visitors

posted on February 4, 2016

By Jackie Kai Ellis, Vancouver Sun |

By Jackie Kai Ellis, Vancouver Sun |

In the late 1970s, my loving mother probably read some article about the evil effects of sugar on children’s brain development, and vowed to protect me from all sweet dangers. And she did so with fierce piety. From the iron fist that fed, there was no intake of gobstoppers or gummy worms, no mouths stained in freezie-coloured hues, and no room on my food pyramid for sugar highs or lows. One might wonder how this kind of restriction affects a child’s development into adulthood. If I am a case study, the pendulum swings far and the child eventually opens a bakery. Sweet revenge.

As a young child, I often accompanied my mother to the butcher, fiddling longingly at the chocolate coins displayed in baskets alongside canned artichokes and anchovies. While she paid for our week’s worth of luncheon meats, the cashier would carefully place a single candy with patterns of bright fruits printed on its wrapper in my hand. As I closed my fingers around this treasure, my mother would pluck it from my palm to return it.

My sister didn’t have much more luck. After sharing stories of sugar deprivation, we realized that we had individually — and separately — drank vanilla extract desperate to find anything that might taste like candy. These kinds of experiences bond people together for life.

To be fair, there were a few exceptions to the sugar-free rule. One was the tray of togetherness. Every Lunar New Year, my mother would fill a black and gold lacquered box spinning on a lazy susan with curious candies, none of which looked like a chocolate bar, but were sweet nonetheless.

Inside the box were eight separate compartments — the number indicating prosperity — each filled with a different candy symbolizing various auspicious blessings including candied coconut for family harmony, candied lotus seeds for fertility, kumquats for abundance, peanuts for longevity and candied winter melon for health. It was like a ceasefire in the war against sugar, and I was able to take freely from the tray, gorging as I pleased.

For two whole weeks the box sat on our living room table to welcome visitors as they celebrated with pockets full of lucky money and traditional meals, each representing the blessings we hoped for in the coming year: dishes of whole steamed fish, its name sounding similar to a word meaning surplus, were meant to bring abundance from the head of the year to the tail end; dumplings in the shapes of ingots were a supplication for prosperity; and turnip cakes and nian gao, their names playing on the words for fortune and amelioration.

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