If I talked to you before I went to the states on my winter vacation, I probably told you the thing I was looking forward to the most was the food.
It’s not that I didn’t miss the people, but thanks to the internet and the occasional phone call, I still had a sense of participation in my friends’ lives. Food, however, is poorly represented over the wire.
I actually kept a food diary to help me remember each meal and avoid duplications. I’ll spare you the tedium of reciting every meal and hit the highlights of my trip. Oh yeah, and I might mention the people I hung out with and the stuff we did.
My first meal in the US was with Marvin at Norm’s, a locally well-known diner in West Hollywood. I was, of course, shocked at the size of my mushroom & swiss cheese burger, but oh, was it tasty. Dinner was my first dose of Mexican food at El Coyote on Beverly Boulevard (coincidentally where Sharon Tate and friends ate their last meal before they were done in by the Manson clan). Being a Jewish household, Marvin also quickly helped me get some bagels and lox back in my system the next morning.
Brian, me, and Nat
I drove to Vegas in the morning of the 20th (passing the snow you see in the picture above) to see Shannon & Kevin get married in the afternoon. The wedding, held at Red Rock Country Club, was gorgeous. The ceremony was outside, and even though Las Vegas is in the middle of a desert, the end of December is pretty cold, so I felt a bit sorry for the ladies in the wedding party as they shivered their way through the vows Kevin and Shannon composed. I was a little surprised the club didn’t bring out any of those freestanding portable heaters, actually. The reception was great too, and I liked their idea of having the wedding party actually sit at normal tables so they could eat with their families and friends instead of isolating them at the front of the room. The meal was a classy prime rib buffet with a host bar.
The next day I saw Brian & Claudia’s house and Greg & Allison’s house. They bought houses quite near each other in central Las Vegas, near where Shannon & Kevin live. That evening was the (4th?) annual Vegas group white elephant party, at Brad & Vanessa’s house this year. I brought a grab bag of assorted Japanese stuff, including an uchiwa (non-folding Japanese fan), a packet of Japanese tissues, and a hand-drying towel like everyone carries in Japan. I brought chicken egg rolls and a turkey sandwich to complement the pizza, hummus & pita, and salad that was already there. It was a fun evening, but I left my camera at my mom’s house, so I don’t have any pictures to share.
On Monday, I drove with my mom out to Bakersfield for a meeting with my grandfather and a long-term care provider. He’s 87 now, and not exactly in the best of health. I guess having TIAs (mini strokes) every few months will do that to you.
Excepting the addition of my grandfather’s little-used computer, his home’s décor hasn’t really changed much in the last thirty years. I suppose my mother looks a little different in this picture than she did growing up there, too. My grandfather and his wife get to stay in their house for now, with a health care worker there twelve hours a day. It’s the best situation for all involved.
While we were there, I worked on his computer, and my mom helped them sort out some stuff that they wanted her advice on. I also got to drive his first generation RX-7, which I always enjoy.
We ate at Lam’s Chinese restaurant one night and El Torito Mexican restaurant the next. I also had one of my perennial breakfast favorites, Kashi Crunch. It’s a cold cereal of “crunchy clusters made from Kashi Seven Whole Grains and Sesame,” with just a hint of cinnamon.
As luck would have it, a good friend and younger neighbor of theirs happens to be an RN, and she stops in about once a day to check on them as well, so I think my mom and I left them in good hands.
Me with the Tehachapi windmills in the background
On the way home, we ate brunch at Kelcy’s Restaurant in Tehachapi. This place has a surprisingly rich history, having survived through seventy five years and a rebuilding after a 7.7 earthquake, much of which is displayed photographically on its walls. I took their last order of freshly-made homestyle biscuits and gravy for the day. I can’t imagine a more stereotypically American breakfast than biscuits & gravy eaten in a roadside diner served by an aging career waitress who calls everyone “darlin’.” Good stuff.
Christmas itself was pretty low key. I was at my mom’s in the morning, and we hung out and talked for most of the day. I had a few presents for her from Japan, and between the garage door she bought me and her plan to take me shopping on Boxing Day, I was well taken care of. We lit Hanukkah candles in the evening and then went over to a family friend’s house for Christmas dinner.
At Angel’s house, I met her daughters Morgan, Kelsey, and Taylor (again?). Taylor is a freshman at the Academy, Kelsey just graduated from the Academy (vocal performance major) and is a freshman at UNR, and Morgan’s been out of school for a short while now, I believe. Kelsey and I had a lot to talk about with our shared past at the Academy and UNR. She and Taylor are both taking Japanese, and were very interested to hear about my experiences in Japan.
Of course, being Christmas dinner, there was a lot of delicious food to be had (and Dr. Pepper, which I believed until very recently to be completely unavailable in Japan). Angel made the traditional meal, with roast turkey, honey-glazed ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. I was in heaven. Remember that scene in Ratatouille where Anton Ego tastes the ratatouille, and is transported back to his childhood? It kind of felt like I was really home, eating that meal. The Peaks have always been great cooks.
The next morning, I woke up to homemade blueberry and blackberry pancakes. I spent Boxing Day at the mall with my mom shopping for clothes, and again felt like I was transported back a dozen years. This time though, the experience wasn’t as pleasant. As much as I love my mom, it’s frustrating to shop with someone who doesn’t share your needs or fashion taste, especially when that person is funding the outing. I really got a feeling for what gets under my brother’s skin when he stays at her house on school vacations.
At the end of the day though, I was extraordinarily grateful for my mother’s largesse. I got the clothes I needed, and spent some time with my mother as two people, rather than mother and child. Lunch was at the mall food court, my only falafel of the trip.
That evening, I went over to Susan & Neil’s with Shannon Wood, and I remembered how different Pizza Hut in Japan is from Pizza Hut in the US. Japanese people seem to like their pizza soaked in oil with extra oil in little packets to drizzle on top. I’m not even kidding- instead of crushed red pepper, they give you packets of what seems like really mild green chili oil to drizzle on top of your pizza. The only good pizza I’ve had in Japan is from this little Italian hole in the wall near Okaido. They have an actual wood-fired oven where you can watch your pizza baking. Anyway, we spent the evening relaxing in front of the Wii (my first go at Wii Fit) and watching videos on YouTube through their NetFlix and YouTube-connected DVR. I tell you, digital convergence has come a long way.
I still hear those old Life commercials in my head when I eat Life cereal (“Mikey likes it!”), as I did the next morning. Lunch was a massive Chipotle burrito before contra dancing.
If you aren’t familiar with it, contra dancing is an American social dance with roots in English and French folk dancing. It’s a “called” dance, which means that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, kind of like a square dance. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, especially with an energetic crowd. When groups of my friends were regularly going to contra dances a few years ago, we totally dominated the floor.
While I’m in Japan, my mom is taking care of my beagle Ellie for me. When my brother moved out of the house, my mother developed a mild case of empty-nest syndrome, and with me out of the country, Ellie and my mom get along fantastically.
The next morning, the three of us went to a dog park for a beagle meetup. About a dozen beagles descended on Desert Breeze dog park at the same time. There was much howling, running, and butt-sniffing. The dog park also has a surprisingly clear view of the Las Vegas skyline. If you click on the picture and open the magnified version, you can see most of the major Las Vegas casinos in the background. Incidentally, what you see is a typical Las Vegas clear blue sky.
After the dog park, I had what was probably my favorite meal of the trip- a fantastic “everything” bagel and lox platter with my mother at The Bagel Cafe. This restaurant has won numerous awards for their food since they opened about ten years ago. It was my first time eating there, and they certainly lived up to their reputation.
We chose a mid-grade salmon for our shared 4oz platter, and it was the perfect amount of fish. The veggies were fresh and crisp, the orange juice was freshly-squeezed, the bagels were baked fresh, and the smoked salmon was to die for. (My mouth is actually watering right now as I write this and look at the picture.) If you’re ever passing through Vegas, I highly recommend you visit The Bagel Cafe.
That evening, I went out with Shannon Wood and about ten friends to celebrate her birthday at Sushi on Rainbow. I was curious to see how my memory of Las Vegas sushi compared with my more recent memory of Japanese sushi. I was pretty much right on; Japanese sushi is fresher (duh), softer, and tastier. Another big difference is the form they each take. Japanese sushi centers around nigiri sushi, the prototypical fish-slice-atop-a-bed-of-rice kind, and American (from my experience anyway) sushi seems more focused on rolls, the more unique the better. Anyway, my favorite is still salmon nigiri. BTW, next time you have sushi, ask for raw onion shavings on top of your salmon, maybe with a smidgen of mayonnaise if you like mayo. I’m not kidding, try it.
In the morning my mom made one of my comfort foods, matzo brie. Along with “English” muffins, I’m always at peace if I have some hot matzo brie in front of me.
The next day, I went to the Las Vegas Springs Preserve with Brian, Claudia, Jesse, Tony, Barbara, and Allison (where we “accidentally” got in free when we came in through the cafe where people usually leave). New Year’s Eve brought a party at Hejmanowski House, which was a normal party, I guess, but felt so strange to me. Maybe I was already subconsciously disconnecting because I knew I was about to leave my friends again, or perhaps I was on edge because I was nervous about making the flight to Colorado, but I didn’t quite feel at ease. I had to leave rather unceremoniously at 1am to drive to Los Angeles to make an 11am flight to Denver for the last leg of my trip.
From Denver, I took a shuttle to Eagle to spend a couple relaxed days with Kyria and her family, a nice end cap to the hustle of outings in Las Vegas. We all played a fair bit of Mario Kart Wii and Rock Band (on the PS3), something I’d missed out on in Vegas. We also just sat around watching movies and cooking, which was novel for me. She lives in a beautiful mountain town with her beautiful family. On my last day there, we made these most incredible pumpkin spice cookies that I actually carried with me, in a little plastic container, through the six airports it took me to get back to Matsuyama. I tell you, I savored each one of those over the next month I made them last.
All in all, it was a fantastic trip. An expensive trip, but worth it.
So, when are you coming to visit me?