Category: Family

Christmas 2006

Monday, December 25th, 2006 | All Things, Eats, Family, Film

It may have been the cold medication — still nursing this nagging cough, ugh — but I ended up sleeping in on Christmas morning. The day was something of an anti-climax — isn’t it always? — as we had dispensed with most of the gift opening/exchanging and familial revelry the night before.

I did, however, eventually make it out to Queens for a late lunch. En route to the subway, I walked along quiet streets, on sidewalks that were suddenly clear of Christmas tree vendors.

Inside the lobby of the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel: a Poinsettia “Tree”, constructed of dozens of tiered pots. The red-leafed plant is native to Mexico and Central America, and named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced it to American floriculture during his tenure as the first United States ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. The plant’s name is one often plagued by beastly mispronunciations. I’ve heard “poyn-setta” and (inexplicably) “point setter,” which sounds like it should be a piece of fencing equipment or some kind of hunting dog. The latter malapropism is so common that if you plug “point setter” into Google, the search will return “Did you mean: poinsettia”?

Yes. Yes, you did. And it’s pronounced “poyn-SET-ee-uh.”

Sheraton Tree

On to dimsum at East Manor in Flushing (sister restaurant of the one in Elmhurst), where we feasted on the usual small plates of dumplings, rice noodle rolls, tripe, mini-ribs… In addition, the restaurant had set up long tables lined with large, steaming pots from which we could order servings of specialty dishes. I noticed one pot, bursting with dark viscous liquid, emitting warm aromas of sweet and sour, anise and cinnamon. I’d recognize it anywhere: the Cantonese pig’s feet stew, traditionally served to new mothers during their postpartum “sitting month” of reclusion. The brew consists primarily of thick, sweetened black vinegar, rice wine, copious amounts of ginger, hard boiled eggs, and hulking chunks of pig’s feet, which unfortunately look exactly like what they are. (We passed.)

East Manor Pots

Also: a griddle station with shrimp paste-stuffed japalenos (much hotter than I expected!), turnip, taro and sweet water-chestnut cakes, and chive dumplings.

East Manor Dimsum

Mom and Dad swung by Sunnyside so I could drop off SYB’s Christmas present on the way back into the city. Christmas Day is always a big movie day, and judging from the crowds at the theatre, it was going to be me, B and about half the population of the Upper West Side. Almost all of the shows were selling out, but we managed tickets to the 8:15PM screening of Apocalypto.

As usual, there were way too many previews, including an unpromising looking one for Nic Cage’s Ghost Rider (not Ghost Writer, as I initially thought it was titled. Apparently that’s an entirely different movie.) The studio describes Apocalypto as “a heart stopping mythic action-adventure set against the turbulent end times of the once great Mayan civilization.” Though several of the sets were impressive in their design, my general impression was more stomach churning than heart stopping… there is raping and pillaging, impaling, a mauling, a poisoning, pox, brain-bashing, spurting blood vessels, threats of skin flaying, and of course, the much talked about human sacrifice/ritual decapitation set piece that features hearts gouged bleeding from live chests. None of which was unexpected: as a filmmaker, Mel Gibson is known to traffic heavily in gore. Apocalypto is probably no gorier than the more disturbing parts of Oscar-winning Braveheart, and reportedly (because I didn’t see it) significantly less gory than 2004’s The Passion of the Christ.

During a couple of the film scenes, I was reminded of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (which also featured a graphic heart removal and one gross-out banquet sequence.) Many have balked at Apocalypto‘s glaring historical conflations and archaeological misrepresentations, but I was focused more on the message Gibson attempted to convey through his film. The decline of the great civilization is never fully expositioned, though the story opens with what is intended as an elucidating quote from historian Will Durant about the fall of Rome: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” Are we to understand then, that the Mayans are doomed to be destroyed, having corrupted themselves through decadent immorality, by brutally asserting their will on the noble savages of the forest? What to make, then, of the deux ex machina arrival of the Spanish conquistadors? Some have lambasted the suggestion of “salvation” by the Christian Europeans, but I actually read this final scene as a great irony: the barbaric oppressors standing on the precipice of become the oppressed, destined to fall to the invading colonialists who will forcefully assert their will on the natives. (Contemporary comparisons abound…) It’s ambiguous, though, and perhaps I am giving Gibson more credit than he deserves?

Imperialist commentary notwithstanding, there’s not much of a story — after the ravaging, imprisonment and some timely astronomy, the final third of the film plays out like one long, extended cat and mouse chase, picturesque as it may be.

After such non-traditional Christmas Day fare, it was time to head home and mull on matters more sweet than vicious. What I would have given for chestnuts and an open fire.

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Christmas Eve 2006

Sunday, December 24th, 2006 | All Things, Eats, Family

Christmas Eve began with a leisurely brunch in the neighborhood, albeit one sans Bloody Marys, thanks to New York’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law, which prohibits the sale of alcohol between 4AM and noon on Sundays.

So we ordered hot coffees from the apologetic server to accompany our Basil-Mozzarella Empanadas with Chimchurri Sauce, Norwegian Eggs, and Porcini, Spinach and Goat Cheese Baked Eggs. All delicious, and a fine way to start off Christmas Eve.

What is it about the holidays that makes us yearn for the warm and familiar?

Cafe Ronda Empanadas

Norwegian Eggs

Cafe Ronda Baked Eggs

Later in the afternoon, I met the family with my freshly-made Thomas Keller marshmallows after their fancy tea at Fauchon. For our Christmas Eve dinner in Whitestone, Mom had forgone the usual ham and prepared a spread for Chinese Hot Pot (a.k.a. Fire Pot) — the East Asian hybrid of soup and fondue. Hot pot pairs a shared kettle of bubbling broth with raw ingredients that are simmered, boiled, blanched or dipped as part of a communal dining experience. For our dinner, there were thin slices of marinated beef and pork, shrimp and cuttlefish balls, whole shrimp, spinach leaves, pea shoots, two kinds of tofu, Chinese cabbage and bean thread noodles.

The meal is sometimes eaten as part of the traditional Chinese New Year feast, and is especially welcome during the winter weeks, even unseasonably warm ones. The entire endeavor is a leisurely, interactive event; the roundness of the pot symbolizes unity, as family and friends gather around to cook and to share. After the meal, what remains is the broth, richly flavored with all the ingredients of the dinner. And in our case: lots and lots of leftovers to be distributed and packaged for the “kids” to take to their respective homes.

Restaurants offering the hot pot abound in Flushing’s Chinatown. In Manhattan, I like Grand Sichuan on Canal near the Manhattan Bridge entrance, and the cheerfully-monikered Happy Shabu Shabu, farther East on Canal, whose website offers the following helpful tips for the hot pot novice:

Don’t feel intimidated if you’ve never done this before: 99 out of 99 people get it right on the first try. Just make sure your pot of liquid is hot — it doesn’t have to be boiling away, but hot enough to see some steam and a few bubbles. We don’t recommend putting your hand in the pot to test the temperature.

Sage advice there.

Christmas Hot Pot

The gift exchange was its typical flurry of wrapping paper, tissue and ribbon. In 2007, I will be improving my cooking skills in high style. Oh, and appreciating fine food, tunes and laughs. I’m a lucky girl.

Thanks and Merry Christmas to all!

Christmas Gifts

I am awed by this family’s deep commitment to the holidays, if slightly perplexed by the one, two, three, four  Santa Clauses (that I could see) and Frosty the Snowman’s insertion into the Nativity scene on the front lawn. There’s always one in the neighborhood, no?

Christmas Lights

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Tomorrow, tomorrow

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006 | All Things, Arts, Family

Jug and the Entertainer treated the family to see Annie at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. The musical — or more accurately, the 1982 film version — was one of the first movies I remember all of us seeing together as a family, so this particular production had some sentimental value. My parents bought us the soundtrack (on cassette tape, of course), which the three kids would play over and over on the portable stereo in the family kitchen.

This three-week limited engagement, part of the 30th anniversary touring revival, stars erstwhile Regis Philbin co-host Kathie Lee Gifford mugging mightily as boozy floozy Miss Agatha Hannigan (memorably inhabited by Carol Burnett in the movie.) J and I snickered at the unintended irony of Gifford ordering young orphans to work after (in)famously becoming embroiled in the Wal-Mart/Honduran sweatshop controversy.

Critics were split over the quality of the show — the Times gave generally favorable marks; the Post liked it somewhat less — which was staged by Martin Charnin, who wrote the show’s lyrics and directed its 1977 Broadway production to seven Tony awards. As holiday fare, though, the quality hardly mattered: every seat in the cavernous Theater was sold, most to families with very small children. I wonder how Mom and Dad felt about accompanying their three decidedly not-so-small children, and two of their spouses. The Charles Strouse-composed tunes were as catchy as ever — “Tomorrow”, “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” — and we could not help but be charmed by the sheer enthusiasm of the able and often adorable orphan cast.

Annie at MSG

MSG Theater

JE missed the four songs composed for the movie that were not in this stage production: “Dumb Dog”, “Let’s Go to the Movies”, “Sign” and “We Got Annie“. In their place: “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover”, “Why Should I Change a Thing?”,”You Won’t be an Orphan for Long”, “Something was Missing”, “New Deal for Christmas” and Strouse and Charnin’s valentine to New York City, “N.Y.C”. Columbia Pictures purchased the rights to the stage production in 1978 for a then-record $9 million, no doubt prompted by the enormous popularity of Grease, which proved that movie musicals could still generate big box office. In a summer movie field crowded by the likes of E.T., Rocky III, Star Trek II (WOK) and Poltergeist, Annie took in a respectable $57 million, but at a reported cost of $50 million, the film was considered a disappointment for the studio.

The film was directed by John Huston(!), his first and only attempt at a film musical. (Reminds me that I’ve yet to see Huston’s final film, The Dead, which is often cited as one of the best holiday films of all time.)

To be fair, Annie is not one of the finest examples of American musical theatre. Although the tunes are peppy and memorable enough to be recognizable, the songs have not entered the popular music canon — Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) notwithstanding. Yet the show continues to be beloved and popular, especially with touring, local and community productions. Why? Kids and dogs, either of which has enormous power to win over an audience. The biggest cheers in this afternoon’s matinee were reserved not for Gifford, but for the shaggy mutt playing Sandy.

The show — which ran for 2,377 performances and is ranked as one of the 20 longest running shows in Broadway history — did have a major cultural impact in inspiring a new generation of young actors, serving as the proving ground for scores of stage and screen child actresses (Sarah Jessica Parker, Alyssa Milano and Molly Ringwald among them.) The phenomenon is the subject of a new documentary, Life After Tomorrow, which follows up on many of the orphans who appeared in the show during its original Broadway run (1977-1983).

After the show, some holiday shopping with PL, ML and their son, M. Later still, over mushroom pizza, we all sat exhausted and in marvel over the boundless energy of two year olds.

You crowd
You cramp
You’re still
The champ

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