Saturday, November 19, 2011

Thanksgiving

It's that turkey time of the year in America. It's taken me a decade and a half and now, I am finally resigned to having my once-a-year-big-bird in November instead of at Christmastime.

Probably because I did not grow up here, I'm not always loyal to the traditions. That of watching the Macy's parade, having turkey at 4pm, then settling in to burp and fall asleep in front of a football game on TV. In fact, I whisk my family off to Europe every few years - it's the perfect four-day long weekend devoid of airport chaos because most travelers are heading to the domestic terminals instead.

Yet, Thanksgiving is a time for gathering and is a cherished moment for me for one particular reason. It brings out the warmest welcome in America because we invite or get invited to celebrate this festive holiday that unites all Americans. Whether it is the tailor from Turkmenistan, the driver from Afghanistan or the nanny from Honduras, almost everyone will be joyfully sitting down to a family dinner of turkey with all its trimmings.

In my first year here, I trooped along with the church's singles fellowship to a home in Teaneck, New Jersey. In fact, whenever we drive by Teaneck, I would reminisce about my first Thanksgiving. I had been invited by a lovely Lebanese couple who generously took in the singles with no nearby relatives. It's a constant theme year after year. We throw open our home to others, come one come all, so that no one has to be alone that night. My husband and I have, over the years, invited friends over for fellowship and dinner. This year, we have added on a family newly arrived from Sweden and another family from New Mexico by way of England. And to illustrate how transient it can all be, we may never be in touch with those we once broke bread with for years to come. I don't think I would recognize half the girls I rode in the car with back in 1996, but that is not to say I would ever forget that one truly enjoyable evening around a warm fireplace.

I take pride in cooking the meal but have given up on apple pie. Comes to show, I am never going to be a true-blue American because I fail so miserably with that one all-American dish. My recipes vary from year to year, mostly from the free booklet that Williams- Sonoma distributes annually, as well as the November issues of Gourmet and Bon Appetit...alas, those publications are no longer the way they used to be. I must say my favorite recipe has always been the turkey with butter seasoned with maple syrup and coriander.

Friends offer to bring something. One year, a friend was tasked with bringing the seasonal cinnamon ice cream from Haagen-Dazs. He took my instructions "Enough for 20" so seriously that he came the night before hauling an industrial-sized canister of ice cream - we had to clear out the freezer to squeeze the tub in.

Shopping for groceries during this mad rush allows one to witness the quirky, cantankerous Seinfeld characters in the city. Many years ago, I shopped at Fairways on the Upper West Side the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Crazy shoppers were having trolley wars and fighting for the elevators, yelling at one another with their pseudo-intellectual sarcastic remarks. Then, there is always the debate about what type of turkey.....free range? (tough and gamey)....organic? ($5 per pound, but is organic gonna save my health just one night?)....frozen Butterball (cheap and still quite good). Each time I select the bird, I would inevitably recall my childhood. My father once drove home with a boxed up live Christmas turkey and let him go in the backyard. The turkey squawked and gurgled the whole night, my mother had to isolate him in the bathroom at the back, only to have the bird dirty the entire floor with 'wet mud', whatever it was.

Yet for all my years of roasting a turkey, I have only done this once for my father. The following year, he exclaimed that my sister's new concept of deep-fried turkey was more impressive. Back to roasting, my sister gave me a fool-proof tip which I use to this day, "Bacon on the breast and butter under the armpits." Puzzled friends would say, "Um, excuse me?" Sounds raunchy but it will give you a moist bird.

Happy Thanksgiving.



Friday, November 18, 2011

The Descendants

We finally got a chance to catch a movie and watched 'The Descendants' in a jam packed theater, a block away from those crazy Occupy Wall Street protesters milling about Union Square. At the last moment, I chose it over Leonardo Di Caprio's cross dressing homage to J. Edgar Hoover, although I had been looking forward to seeing Leo once again after having spotted him in the flesh back in July at the Mandarin Oriental.

'The Descendants' is a two thumbs up movie - albeit a bit slow, causing my husband to check his Blackberry in the dark and getting a well deserved whack from me. It is a social drama/ comedy, a relatively new genre which in this case, lets you laugh and cry in the midst of a story involving infidelity, living will, 'DNR', squabbling entitled cousins and rude children who curse like sailors. The storyline is unusual and fascinating. I will not spoil it for readers. George Clooney is the lead character and authenticates his role looking every bit the over-the-hill graying father that his ex Elisabetta described him to be, not your imagined suave charmer that he usually is.

In one scene, Clooney as Matt King, meets up with his cousins. They are the descendants of a sprawling family attempting to cash in on a lucrative parcel of pristine land handed down by their ancestor, a Hawaiian princess. The cousins come to the boardroom dressed in Hawaiian shirts, bermuda shorts and sandals. This particular scene reminded me of my own father. Since the late 70s, my father's attire of choice has been similar to the King cousins', whether he is attending a family outing, visiting the doctor or celebrating his 80th birthday. His first few Hawaiian shirts were souvenir gifts from my sister after her vacation to the islands. He had never travelled to Hawaii until 2002 when I took him there to recover emotionally after my mother's death.

The movie also reminded me of another situation currently in the news. Lately, my sisters have been updating me about the Singapore government's plans to widen a major road by relocating the Bukit Brown cemetery. There has been much opposition and regret expressed about this proposal because the most illustrious pioneers in Singapore's history are buried there. It so happens that I have at least two ancestors buried there - Cheang Hong Lim, Cheang Jim Chuan and Gan Eng Seng. Yes, I can proudly lay claim to be descended from the lord of the opium syndicate in Southeast Asia - Cheang Hong Lim.

My sisters cautioned that I should not write to the authorities in case they come after us to bear the responsibilities of exhuming the bodies. Interestingly, the commotion surrounding this controversy has brought distant relatives out of the woodwork - people whom we have never heard of but who lay equal claim to be descendants of Cheang Hong Lim. I guess it is a revelation because we seldom thought of who these cousins were, let alone the fact that they exist. After all, my mother's maiden name was Cheang and I guess the situation was analagous to us seeing her as a Windsor and discounting all the Armstrong-Jones relatives out there.

One sister went digging further into the family history and expressed regret that Cheang Hong Lim's sons took sides, squabbled and sued over property, eventually auctioning off valuable tracts of land in what is now Singapore's prime District 10.

Pondering on a movie plot and true family stories of my own, I guess tonight's movie was not so fictional after all.

Indonesia in Amsterdam

For years, my daughter had wanted to visit Amsterdam. We were cautioned by friends that parts of the city - particularly Dam Square - m...