‘We are what we eat’: Celebrating Lunar New Year with Petaluma’s Lew family
Lance Lew grew up learning to cook from his father, grandmother and aunt.
A well-known Bay Area celebrity because of his decades of work both on and off the air for NBC Bay Area, Lew is also a lifelong Petaluman, with a few brief stints elsewhere, including his time attending Chico State, where he put on cooking demonstrations and taught cooking classes to earn spending money.
Food has been an integral part of Lance’s life since he was a child, growing up at the family’s Petaluma Grocery Supermarket, which stood at the corner of Petaluma Blvd. N. and Lakeville from 1941 until 1979.
“It takes a village — our grocery store created a safe village setting of co-parenting uncles and aunties,” Lew said. “Chinese New Year was special and allowed us to share all the customs of the holiday. Remember, we were to assimilate and be Americanized but during this special season we decorated our doors with red lucky banners, dressed in culturally appropriate clothing and shared homemade foods.”
Taking this passion for food to another level, Lance has become renowned over the past couple of decades for his 10 course Chinese New Year, Benzinger Winery paired dinners, which regularly sell at charity auctions for north of $10,000.
Having never experienced a Lunar New Year’s celebration ourselves, other than attending the occasional Chinese New Year parade in the city as a kid, and always paying attention to which animal of the Chinese zodiac is represented by the new year (we just moved from the Ox into the year of the Tiger), we were elated to receive an invite to celebrate this year’s traditional transition with the Lews - a family with a passion for food and family, as well as a deep-rooted connection to Petaluma itself.
We had seen the photos over the years and always dreamed of attending a Lance Lew Chinese New Year so were elated to receive an invitation to the reunion dinner, set for the last weekend in January.
“Chinese close out the year with a ‘reunion dinner’ prior to the new lunar year beginning Feb. 2, 2022,” Lance explained. “It is a kind of a recap meeting for the year, prior to moving into the new year, with the good food always helping to soften the mood. This year will be special due to the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics.”
Had Lance not gone into broadcasting, he would have been a perfect teacher because he shares information in a welcoming manner, never talking down to, and always including his audience. And his patience is second to none.
Depending on where you are in the world or from where you draw your cultural foundations, New Year is sometimes called Lunar New Year, the Spring Celebration, and, due to their vast influence over the millennium throughout Asia, often as Chinese New Year. However, what all these New Year’s celebrations have in common is that they are based on a calendar that follows the lunar cycles, as opposed to the western world’s Gregorian calendar, where the phases of the moon never line up with the same days of the month.
“The reunion dinner is sometimes referred to as an ‘au revoir’ dinner, incorporating foods that are similar to our new year menu - something from the sky, land and sea,” he said. “The greatest importance of the dinner is the gathering of family and friends to ‘close out’ the year and to start with a clean slate for the new year.”
At this recent dining event, we would learn much more.
Dining at the Lews’ is like eating a story, only this one not only tasted heavenly, but was meant to impress the heavens, as well as pay respect to our ancestors. I say “our” because even though we were new to this cultural experience, the Lews invite guests to assimilate into their culture, at least for the night. Knowing very little about the Chinese culture, some might have been put off balance with such an inundation of cultural information but Lance presents it all in such a inviting manner. It is all about celebrating, sharing and connecting. This would have been an incredible dinner even had we been eating rice and vegetables with all the stories elevating the flavors. But Lance makes it six, and even eight times better.
Most of the dishes revolve around word play and are chosen based on homonyms of the Chinese words for each dish, Lance said.
Our meal started off with a fish dish, which holds significance because the word for fish in Chinese is a homonym for plentiful supply.
“We are what we eat”, says Lance. “We are hoping for plentiful supplies in the new year.”
This particular dish was a simply seared scallop served on a grilled orange. Having never been served a grilled orange with dinner, we chuckled when Lance broke the confusion - “you can eat the orange, if you want.”