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The Meaning Behind Mooncakes

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, begins today. It's celebrated around Asia and also in the U.S. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on some celebrations of the harvest moon.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The upcoming Netflix animated musical "Over The Moon" retells the myth of the moon goddess Chang'e. On Earth, she married an archer named Houyi, who shot down nine of the ten suns around Earth so they wouldn't burn up the planet. As a reward, the gods gave him a pill to make him immortal. When his apprentice tried to steal it, Chang'e swallowed it instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OVER THE MOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Then she floated, leaving her true love. And she waits for him on the moon above.

DEL BARCO: Part of the celebration involves lighting up paper lanterns and eating handmade pastries with sweet or savory fillings - mooncakes. Phoenix Bakery in LA's Chinatown has been making these treats by hand for 82 years. Bakers roll out dough and fill each square with red bean paste, lotus or a mixture of ham and dried fruit. They fold up each cake and press it into a well-worn paddle with designs carved into it.

YOULEN CHAN: These are the molds that we use to decorate with. And as you can see, it's stamped in Chinese, which I can't read, so I translated it.

DEL BARCO: Youlen Chan says his father brought the wooden molds from China to the family's bakery decades ago. He and the other bakers then pound out each mooncake to be baked. Chan, who's 64, was born and raised in LA and remembers his family eating mooncakes in front of altars where they prayed to the moon goddess during the festival. Chan's 75-year-old cousin Kathy Chan Ceppi runs the bakery.

KATHY CHAN CEPPI: The symbolism of the mooncake, of course, is it's round like the moon. It symbolizes family and harmony. It's given as a gift.

DEL BARCO: They both grew up in the bakery, watching their parents work. She says her mom and dad moved to LA in 1938.

CHAN CEPPI: They started the bakery because they miss the sweets from China. And my mother's thinking actually was, people always celebrate with sweets. Even during the pandemic, there's always birthdays. You know, all our wedding cake orders got canceled, the quinceaneras, the graduations. But birthday cakes are needed, and that's sort of kept us afloat so far.

DEL BARCO: She says the pandemic has shut down the community's annual Moon Festival, but customers are still buying Phoenix Bakery's fresh mooncakes made with techniques handed down for generations. The bakers brush the hand-stamped mooncakes with duck egg yolk, then place them on racks inside a huge 15-foot-wide oven to bake. The trays rotate like a carousel, sounding eerie and celestial.

(SOUNDBITE OF OVEN TRAYS TURNING)

DEL BARCO: Yang Liu is a lunar scientist at Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The moon is something she's contemplated since she was a child in the Henan province of central China near the Yellow River. Growing up, she was told another myth about goddess Chang'e, her pet and a 500-foot-tall tree.

YANG LIU: There is a rabbit trying to make immortal elixir potions, and there's the moon. So looking at the moon, I'm always trying to see the rabbit under the tree.

DEL BARCO: Liu says her family didn't have much money, but each Moon Festival, they would celebrate by eating elaborate feasts followed by mooncakes. They carried paper lanterns with candles. They lit incense and made wishes. Her concept of the moon is more scientific these days.

LIU: On the moon, rather than liquid water, we may have water ice like glaciers on Earth. It's probably much older than Ice Age on Earth.

DEL BARCO: Liu and other scientists are still analyzing geological samples taken by NASA's Apollo mission decades ago. She says the chemistry of the moon's frozen water may reveal the age of our planet Earth.

LIU: We are hoping the future missions from studying the water ice on the lunar South Pole - it can tell us some information where the water come from on Earth.

DEL BARCO: The 47-year-old says she always wanted to go to the lunar South Pole as an astronaut.

LIU: One of my dream for the future is to drink wine on the moon (laughter). Yeah, I just think about real moonshine.

DEL BARCO: That's her wish for this year's Moon Festival, too. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENOIT AND SERGIO SONG, "LONG NEGLECTED WORDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.