Friday, November 25, 2011

Tropical Turkey Day, Upside Down Cake

We had a different kind of Thanksgiving this year. We ran away from home to a tropical island for a few days.  Instead of cooking up a storm, I was walking on the beach. Slicing pineapple instead of pureeing pumpkin.  Applying sunscreen instead of whipped cream.   Reading novels instead of consulting cookbooks.  Stuffing my face instead of stuffing the turkey...

You get the idea.

And yes, I do know exactly how lucky I am, thank you very much.  Licking my emotional wounds with mai tais is definitely not a bad way to go.   But as pleasant and nice as this is, it's also strange and  unsettling.  It feels quite odd to be here.

That being said, the vacation was going beautifully until it came time to have Thanksgiving dinner.  I'd booked a reservation days in advance at a posh restaurant overlooking the ocean that was known for its cuisine and impeccable service.  The website promised "a traditional Thanksgiving option" as well as selections from their regular menu. I was excited. After all, if I was going to betray an entire lifetime of days-in-the-making, completely from scratch, gather-everyone-around-the-family-table Thanksgiving tradition, I figured I might as well do it in style.

I made my husband put on long pants. I made my daughter put on her plainest black T-Shirt.  I made my son clean his shoes.  I tried my best to comb out my hair so the imprint of the baseball cap wasn't so visible.   I hustled them into the car and we headed out.

We pull up to the valet.  The people in the car ahead of us got out and walked into the restaurant.  In shorts, baseball caps and tennis shoes.

My husband:  I knew I could have kept my shorts on.
My daughter:  Are you sure this is a nice place?  I mean, they have a valet and all, but that lady looks just like you did a few minutes ago, and she's coming here.

After a short wait, we are shown to our table, with a full view of the starlit sky and the glow of the lit tiki torches below.  There are many well dressed people around us.  I feel vindicated and content.  Two musicians are playing Hawaiian-ized pop music on native instruments near the bar, which is crowded with patrons waiting for tables. The sounds mingle and drift our way, creating a relaxing background to the conversation. The restaurant has no walls, so the ocean breeze is wafting over us as the hostess hands out menus.  As I'm reading, I'm filled with a growing sense of dread.

My son:  What is WRONG with these people?  This is the most unhelpful menu I have ever seen.  Who writes this way in real life?

He reads aloud in a highly sarcastic voice:

Grilled Maui Cattle Grass Fed Filet. Kula Creamed Corn. House Whipped Potatoes.  Local Beet-Tomato-Onion Chutney.

Me:  If you don't like something, just have it on the side.
Him:  It's not the things I don't like, it's the menu! I have NO idea from what they wrote there if I like the things or not. What's up with this!  Can't they just say steak and mashed potatoes like normal people?

My daughter pipes up.

Her:  Whoever heard of a Caesar Salad with croutons made out of fried green tomatoes?  Croutons means bread. Tomatoes are red. This place is messed up.
My husband:  Guys, Mom really wants to have a nice evening.  Let's all try to find something we can eat here.
My son:  OK, Dad.  I'll do that.  If you can tell me what cavatelli pasta is and why the asparagus has a first name, I will totally shut up.
Me:  How about the fish and chips?
My daughter:  Mom!  It says "fish and chips" in [making the marks in the air for emphasis] quotation marks.   It's actually fish and eggplant.  Eggplant!  And who puts corn in tartar sauce?  The same people who think tomatoes are croutons, that's who.

The waiter arrives.  My husband asks if he can recommend anything for not-so-adventurous eaters.  He mentions the Harvest Plate* and gets nothing, then points out a mild fresh ono with macadamia nut crust.  The stares are withering.  He starts to look a little nervous.

My son (through gritted teeth):  I''ll have the filet, please.
My daughter (falsely cheerful):  I'll have the same.  Well done.  Like burnt.
Me:  (still trying to salvage something here):  I'll have the scallops.

My husband lets out a huge "hrrumph" and dramatically opens up his menu again.

Me:  Oh gosh!  Did you want the scallops?  I thought you would be getting the rib eye! I'm so sorry!
Him: (sighing pointedly)  Well, yes I did want the scallops, but I guess I'll be having the rib eye.
Me:  (clapping a little with delight)  Oh good!  I wanted to try that.

The kids roll their eyes. My husband glares at me, then looks meaningfully at my daughter.

Him:  And a Caesar salad to start.
The waiter:  And how did you want that rib-eye cooked, sir?
Me: (without looking up from the menu)  Medium.

There's a hush around the table, then everyone, including the waiter, bursts out laughing.  I'm blinking in confusion for a minute, then I start giggling, too.

The tension we all felt at being far from home, in a place that feels not just odd but downright alien, particularly on this night, is gone.  We talk and we bicker and we eat and we laugh some more.  We tease each other and do trivia questions and split the scallops and the rib eye.  We toast the occasion and plan our outing for tomorrow.

No one eats the beet stuff.

And we agree I will make a real Thanksgiving dinner when we get home. This whole thing is just a little too upside down for our taste.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


A few days before Thanksgiving last year, my phone rang.  It was Mom.  In a scared voice, she told me she'd just fallen down in her apartment and was too weak to move.  She called the paramedics, I got in my car.  

Death, for her, became a nice option to consider.  
Life, for me, became a blur. 
Family descended.
It was all wrong.
I found ways to be grateful.
But Thanksgiving was bad.   
And after was worse.
With small moments of OK in between.

A few days before Thanksgiving this year. this arrived in the mail.

It was addressed to Mom.  In the last few years, she'd taken to doing much of her Christmas shopping from this catalog. Petit Fours for Auntie Agnes. Chocolate turtles for Chris.  Cashews for Clarence. All ordered sometime in October, because she was worried about the mail taking a while during the the holidays.  My box of toffee arrived just days after she went into hospice, cheerfully wrapped with a tasteful note:

Happy Holidays
Love, Mom

The irony was so bitter it hurt, just like everything else.
Weeks later, she wrote the check in a shaky hand:

Pay to the order of Swiss Colony - $28.11

She crossed it off her list of "December bills" with satisfaction.
I remember getting really irritated by that check.
I remember saying that nobody wanted chocolates from her.  That we wanted her to get well instead.
She ignored me.
I mailed the envelope.

When the catalog came, I went to the fridge in the garage, and looked at the box of toffee still sitting there on the shelf.

I left the box where it was. I kept the catalog, too. 

Thanksgiving will never be what it was before.
But in the midst of the emotional chaos this day now generates, I have a new and profound connection to idea of giving thanks.

Things I hold dear are perishable.
I'm beyond fortunate to have them in my life.

And I'll be holding onto them for as long as I can.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Nemesis - Definition 2

We were driving home from dinner the other night, my husband in his car, and the kids and I in mine, just behind him.  We reached the corner of our street.  The light was red, but my husband made the right turn quickly.  I watched helplessly as a big pick-up truck came through the intersection and nearly hit him.   The truck clearly had the right of way, and I began babbling out loud in relief at the near miss.

Me:  Oh, no! Daddy wasn't looking and that truck almost ran into him!  Did you see that? Oh my god. What was he thinking? Holy cow.
My daughter:  I HATE pick-up trucks!  They are always doing bad things.  I HATE THEM!!!
Me:  Honey, it wasn't the truck's fault.  Daddy turned without looking first.
My daughter:  Pick-up trucks are EVIL! If you only knew what I know about pick-up trucks.
My son:  Mom, can I get a pick-up truck?
My daughter:  I saw an accident with a drunk driver and he hit a street light and KILLED people.  I will NEVER, EVER ride in a pick-up truck!!
My son:  Please?

Sibling = Nemesis

[Definition 2:  An opponent or rival one cannot best or overcome.]

Nemesis - Definition 1

According to, the definition of nemesis is as follows:

nem·e·sis [nem-uh-sis]
noun, plural -ses  [-seez]
1. something that a person cannot conquer, achieve, etc.: The performance test proved to be my nemesis.
2. an opponent or rival whom a person cannot best or overcome.
3. (initial capital letter) Classical Mythology . the goddess of divine retribution.
4. an agent or act of retribution or punishment.

Nemesis is also the name of a (not very good, in my opinion) Phillip Roth novel.  Per Amazon:

In the "stifling heat of equatorial Newark," a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, lifelong disability, and even death. This is the startling theme of Philip Roth’s wrenching new book: a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children.

That's right.
Maiming. Paralysis.
The corrupting influence of fear.
Jewish guilt and loss of faith.
The war.
Lots of death.

Subject matter that could have been the nemesis...
[Definition 1: something that a person cannot conquer or overcome]
...of an eager first time book club hostess*.

But I was not afraid.
I made comforting food.
Jewish-ish food.
Lots of food.
I conquered.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Donuts. Is there anything they can't do?

It's widely known that Los Angeles has more donut shops per capita than anywhere else in the country*.  There's practically one on every corner.  In fact, there is one on our corner.

So this clearly qualifies as superfluous, right?

I've never made donuts before.  Why would I, when I can get a delicious glazed old fashioned for 75 cents anytime** without having to break out a vat of boiling oil?

Here's why.  When you make them at home, your son will take one bite and say, "I think this is the happiest moment of my life right here!  Mom, you are the BEST!"

Saturday, November 12, 2011

One sign you are working at an early stage company

You get emails like this:

To: All
RE: Visitors in the office

Everything looks good.  Thanks for pitching in.
BTW, do not use the microwave during the demo.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Dim sum and then some

Is it just our family, or does the equation:

Eating out with relatives = Going for dim sum

apply to everyone?

Father in law comes to town.
Dim sum.

Aunt's 62nd birthday.
Dim sum.

Holiday lunch with a whole bunch of cousins.
Dim sum.

It doesn't even matter whose relatives they are. My family. His family. Vastly different groups of people who otherwise have literally nothing in common (except being related by marriage to one of us).

They all love dim sum.

They will patiently wait quite a long time* for dim sum.   They collectively ooh and ah over the har gow and the bao, the shu mai and the rice noodles.  Dip the dumplings in the hot chili paste and mustard, pour tea, and send one of the cuter little kids to chase down the potsticker cart.  That's always the crowd favorite, and seems to be perpetually on the other side of the football field-sized dining hall. After eating themselves silly, they even get takeout dim sum for later**. Yep, everybody is all about the dim sum***.

Except, of course, our children.

My daughter:  I'll have plain white rice**** and a coke.
My son:  (texting and not looking up) I brought my own grapes.  Just a coke.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Want to see something really scary?

No, it's not Dan Ackroyd*.
It's the candy bowl on the day after Halloween.

The ultimate parent trap**.

Sure, you can donate the candy to the local children's hospital.  Or bring the candy to the single people in the office.  Or, hide the candy way up high in the cupboard and pretend to forget all about it until about 4:30 in the afternoon when you just need a little something sweet to tide you over until dinner and then stuff the wrappers deep in the trash so no one knows the candy is still somewhere in the house.

But what's fun about that?