This year, for Thanksgiving, I signed up to make lime jello cheesecake for the lunch gathering at my Aunt Pauline/Uncle Paul’s house (for my dad’s side of the family.) My cousin T volunteered to make macaroni and cheese. Joe got nudged to make sticky rice; he kind of wanted to anyway.
Much will be editorialized about Thanksgiving being the quintessential American melting pot holiday, where we can bring whatever we want from our extra-American roots to the dining table. I have a funny story to add these chestnuts. Most Chinese/Cantonese Americans have a ‘stuffing’ of sticky rice with chinese sausage, mushrooms, etc. as part of Thanksgiving. My friend Casey (who’s Japanese American) was telling me when he went to his first Thanksgiving with Dorothy’s family (she’s Chinese American), he was surprised there was no mashed potatoes and gravy, but there was sticky rice instead!
For the gathering on Friday evening for my mom’s side of the family, we did hot pot, since the Dungeness crab season has essentially been kibboshed. And even though it doesn’t really go with it, I made Minnesota salad.
The twist this year is that I was going to be making these dishes where I’m house-sitting: different kitchen equipment, different stores.
I set off to buy all the Thanksgiving ingredients on Tuesday, and found everything except lemon jello at the family-run, Farmer Joe’s Market (it’s a like a mash-up of Whole Foods and late Andronico’s) up the street.
On Wednesday, I looked at the recipe to start the cheesecake base. I had forgotten to get brown sugar. So when I went to Safeway to get the lemon jello, I decided instead of buying a box of brown sugar, I’d simply take a few packets of the turbinado (brown sugar) from the in-store Starbucks. All I needed was ¼ cup anyway. Yes, I was being cheap, yes I am Chinese, you can put the two together. But I did have a sliver of conscience: I decided to split the difference. I took a few packets from Starbucks, and stopped by Peet’s down the street and take some from them also! (Since I had met Casey for coffee the previous afternoon in another Starbucks, and hadn’t added any sugar to my drink, I was simply making up for that entitlement!)
WTF! There was no lemon jello at Safeway either. There was lime, cherry, orange, but no lemon. 0 for 2 now. Had it been discontinued? (That is a recurring theme in my life: my favourite products keep going obsolete.) I was panicking slightly; I didn’t know what or how to substitute for lemon jello for this recipe. I had lemons at home for juice and rind, or I could buy fancy imported lemon curd, but this is one of those recipes you do not want to mess around with. Especially not less than 24 hours before you’re supposed to serve it to an audience who is very familiar with how it looks and tastes.
Further down the street was a Mexican market. Hallelujah! Mi Tierra had lemon jello. (I think Mexicans eat more jello-based deserts, i.e. I’ve seen to-go cups of fruity yogurt-and-jello parfaits in bakeries and supermarkets).
Even better, they had another bone-based food: chicken feet. I bought some to simmer for soup, to leach out the cartilage, since my knees are still grouchy. (I’m not a fan of the concept of supplements, although a couple of my similarly-doubter friends have said glucosamine does work.)
During my grade-school years in Bangkok, my friends and I would sometimes snack after school on jello powder or instant noodle bricks, straight from the package, no water added. The jello powder was essentially like Pixie Stix, but in packet form. The noodle bricks (either Mama or Wai Wai), we could sprinkle the chili/flavor powder over it. All of our parents scolded us for doing so, because it was supposedly bad for you, but that made it all the more delish. Besides, they could never explain precisely why it was bad for you, just a vague ‘it’s bad for your digestive system.’
It’s neat to see the transformation of the pale green lime jello crystals dramatically becoming a clear “Romancing the Stone” emerald green once it comes in contact with water. The plumes of dissolving powder undulating in streaks made me think of the Northern Lights, which I’d seen for the first time this past fall. There’s different colors possible for them apparently; they appear in greens, pinks, purples, as well as white. But my eyesight is poor, all I ever see when I look up at objects in the night skies is shades of white.
I carefully poured the lime jello over the lemon cheesecake layer, so that it would neither disturb nor foam bubble. Unlike the apricot shortbread that’s in my repertoire of deserts, I find that dealing with foods in layers where it’s important to keeps the layers clean for aesthetics takes more effort/patience than I can afford, even though it looks so cool.
I remember seeing photos of a rainbow-layered jello desert when I was a kid, probably on the back of the box, and being very impressed with it. I remember wanting one for my birthday, even if it probably wouldn’t taste as good as cake with frosting.
There was a really interesting article in the New York Times Magazine on Betty Crocker food, which I associate both these recipes from that era. Both of these recipes are rooted in post-war iconic American processed foods: miniature marshmallows, Dole canned crushed pineapple, lime and lemon Jell-O, a silver block of Philadelphia cream cheese. But there’s good stuff in them too, like fresh cranberries, walnuts for both these dishes, and whipping cream (no, believe it or not, not Cool-Whip!)
For the Minnesota salad this time, I hand-chopped each of those cranberries with the Migros knife, since that was the best tool I had on hand. I bet most people don’t know that (1) cranberries have seeds, roughly the size and color of mustard seeds, and (2) the inside of a cranberry is white and spongy firm, not mushy, so it’s actually easy to slice. But after a while, the chopped cranberries mixed with sugar bleed, resulting in a juice that is the dark red color that you’d expect. I wonder if it’s due to oxidation? As it turned out, hand slicing left the cranberries too chunky, so there wasn’t enough to juice to tint it the usual shade of pink.
Of the 90% of Thanksgiving meals that feature some sort of cranberry, I wonder what is the ratio of dishes that use fresh cranberry vs. processed cranberry (canned, jellied, prepared sauces). Joe’s family’s Thanksgiving dinners rely on Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce. The tradition is really about the opening of the can and sliding the garnet cylinder so that it shudders out with a whomp! when the vacuum of the can fills with exposed air.
Hotpot at Mom’s tends to proceed in fits and starts, since the electrical wiring at her house is very archaic. True to form, there was lots of short-circuiting and re-setting the circuit breakers, since Mom had both an induction hot plate/soup pot, and a shabu grill plate going, and an electric kettle to boil water for topping up the hotpot. She keeps buying different electric hot pots to try out and discarding them. “Why don’t you simply stick to the butane canister stoves?” I asked. “I don’t know how to use them,” even though she had one.
The other Thanksgiving tradition is to acknowledge thanks and gratitude. Instead of talking about the stuff that truly matters: health, family, friends, etc, I’m going to give a shout-out for things which can simply be bought with money. I’m very happy they exist at this point in my life. In alphabetical order:
- Asphalt Mix chocolates from Recchiuti, San Francisco.
- Blenheim apricots. And mangosteens.
- Bundaberg Ginger Beer
- Chocolate Showers from Loard’s Ice Cream (East Bay)
- Converse Chuck Taylors
- Dad’s Cardamom ice cream from Three Twins
- Dave’s Organic Red Heirloom Pasta Sauce
- Drawn & Quarterly graphic novels, but especially those by Adrian Tomine and Guy Delisle.
- Duarte’s, Pescadero
- Egg custard tarts from Napoleon Bakery, Oakland
- Egg salad sandwiches from Pret a Manger (yes, the chain)
- Galaktabureko (desert) at Evvia, Palo Alto
- Haig’s Muhammara dip
- Hawker Fare, Oakland
- Hong Kong-style milk tea from Shooting Star, Oakland
- Icebreaker underwear
- Jambalaya, fried fish and a sunnyside up egg at Cajun Kitchen, Santa Barbara
- Kimchi from the tofu guy at Mountain View Farmer’s Market
- Koobideh, barbequed tomato and rice from Rose Market, Mountain View
- Lers Ros, San Francisco.
- Madras Café, Sunnyvale
- Meiji Chelsea Yogurt Candy
- The New York Times in hard copy
- Newman’s Own Newman’s O’s cookies (their version of Oreos)
- Oaklandish Bart Tree t-shirt
- Ollalieberry milkshakes at Fatapple’s, El Cerrito/Berkeley
- Ortlieb panniers
- Pinot Noir wines from Navarro Vineyards
- Roast duck and roast pork from Cheung Hing in San Francisco
- Sakurambo Vert tea from Lupica
- Samosas from Rangoli, Santa Clara
- San Jose Tofu, San Jose
- Smartwool socks
- Swimming at the Eagle Park Pool in Mountain View
- Thick crust pizza from Blue Line Pizza
- Trader Joe’s Butter Almond Thins
- TriSwim Body Wash
- Vitamin D lotion from Body Time
- Walnut-date candy from Kee Wah Bakery in Hong Kong