Photos by Sienna Parulis-Cook
To try ice cream mooncakes, click here for the recipe.
China's Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month and was celebrated this year on October 3rd. The holiday is a harvest festival and a time of family reunion. Historically, Mid-Autumn Festival was also a time for moon worship. Women would set up an altar in their family's courtyard with statues of the moon rabbit, melons and pomegranates to symbolize fertility, and 13 mooncakes to represent the 13 months of the Chinese lunar calendar. The mooncakes varied by region but were generally round in shape (a symbol of reunion), a few inches in diameter and contained a rich, sweet filling of lotus seed paste, nuts, dried fruits, sweet beans or other ingredients. After worshipping the full moon, family members would eat the cakes together.
The moon-worshipping ritual has disappeared in modern-day Beijing, but the mooncakes have survived. They were banned in some parts of the country during the Cultural Revolution and unavailable during times of extreme hardship. But even at the height of Maoism, mooncakes were often produced by state-owned factories or bakeries and distributed by the work unit, and citizens were given special mooncake ration coupons at Mid-Autumn Festival. While moon worship, along with many other facets of Chinese popular religion, was eradicated as an obstruction to the realization of Communism, mooncakes, like other festival foods such as glutinous rice balls at the Lunar New Year or zongzi, steamed rice dumplings, at the springtime Dragon Boat Festival, were deemed a less threatening part of the tradition.