At 3:57 a.m. on Monday, March 30th, I was woken by a text from my brother-in-law: “Baby girl Ruby was born at 1:09 a.m.” It was my sister’s first baby, and our parents’ first grandchild. After exchanging excited messages with my family in our group chat, I got out of bed and walked to the still dark kitchen. I picked up a piece of ginger and a spoon and, standing over the sink, began doing what newly minted Chinese aunts have done for thousands of years upon receiving news of a birth in the family: I started peeling ginger.
There are two cornerstones to observing zuo yue zi—坐月子”—the ancient Chinese postpartum tradition of caring for new mothers: eating nourishing and restorative foods loaded with specialty ingredients, and confinement. Literally translated, zuo yue zi means “sitting a moon cycle,” and is a tradition that has been documented as early as 960 AD. With confinement pretty much taken care of by COVID quarantine, it was my job to provide my sister with the restorative dishes.
The first on my list was ginger fried rice, a dish I was so familiar with I didn’t need a recipe. I used my cleaver to julienne two inches of peeled ginger to the width of matchsticks, and then with the flat body of the cleaver I smashed garlic, easing the dried peels from the cloves and releasing the juices as my mom had taught me when I was first learning to cook. My sister likes a lot of garlic, so I added a bit more than I knew the dish called for.
Next up was jujube soup with goji berry and chicken, and two hot drinks, the first made with oats, ginger, and cinnamon, and the second with jujube and goji berries. Unlike ginger fried rice, I had no muscle memory for these things, so I cooked standing in the glow of my phone, carefully following recipes a friend had photographed from The First Forty Days, a book I couldn’t get a physical copy of in time for baby Ruby’s birth but whose guidance had nonetheless been an essential part of my crash course in zuo yue zi.
Just a few months before, all I knew about this ritual was that it involved food. I had no idea which foods, let alone how to prepare them.
As the reigning matriarch of our family unit, my mom was supposed to be in charge of making the zuo yue zi dishes for my sister, Tiffany, much like my great-grandmother had done for her. The plan was for my mom to fly from her home in California to New York and stay with me for a month to help take care of my sister. But as Tiffany’s due date drew near, and the pandemic unfolded at a furious pace, the number of confirmed cases and deaths mounting daily, the plan had to be scrapped. By late March, when my sister was about to deliver at NYU Langone hospital, New York City was the national epicenter of COVID-19. All non-essential businesses were closed, Governor Cuomo was on TV each day communicating a dire need for ventilators, and grocery stores, once mazes of high-stacked plenty had become chess boards for high-stakes maneuvers; bearing the burden of our collective anxieties about survival, scarcity, and preparedness.
Not only could my mom not stay with me in New York City and prepare the zuo yue zi foods, just getting the basic ingredients would be a challenge.
I have no experience caring for infants—I have never changed a diaper in my life and do not plan on having any biological children of my own. The responsibility of being my sister’s sole postpartum helper was daunting. But cooking? That I could do. I haven’t met a food challenge I didn’t relish, and preparing zuo yue zi during a pandemic would be the ultimate challenge.