My father always had sage advice to give the night before Thanksgiving. He would turn to face me across our enormous, dark wood dinner table and say, “Eat as much as you can tonight so you stretch your stomach for tomorrow!” This is the kind of family I grew up in. Food was always a central topic; if we weren’t talking about it, we were eating it. And Thanksgiving marked the day where a total food immersion was not only accepted, but jubilantly exalted..
I grew up in a family that was a bit more old world. We were one of those families that sat down to dinner every evening at 5:30pm. My dad would zoom up the driveway after work, our dog Harry would bark his welcome home, and we would all march to the table to have the “quality family time” that was so important to our parents. We always had a home cooked meal, whether it be Indian, Chinese, or American inspired, and it was usually completed with a home-made baked dessert. There were no TV dinners and we most definitely had to all sit around the table and talk about our days. You can imagine how much I loved that, especially when all my friends got to eat dinner in the living room while playing Nintendo.
I now can appreciate those dinners and the food my parents made me eat (sometimes I had to sit at the table long after everyone was finished, staring at my cold vegetables and glass of milk, willing myself to gag them down) which somehow led to me being food obsessed. If you think those dinners sound a bit out of the ordinary these days, our Thanksgivings were even more so. But Thanksgiving is still one of those holidays I look forward to beginning every third Friday of November!
When I was a baby kid, we used to go to my grandparent’s house. My grandfather is a writer and his house is littered with memorabelia from over the past 60 years of his career. His basement is basically a storage compartment lined with shelves of old books and magazines. Wind up toys of Godzilla and Moby Dick shuttered dust when brought to life, and a large glass medicine jar containing a fake head and ping-pong sized eyeballs, all submerged in murky green water, was the ultimate toy piece. We used to race down the stairs to whip the lid off the jar and force our brothers to smell the head. We were all about holiday spirit and family appreciation in our household! Also, original stills of Snow White and Lady and the Tramp lent a magical Disney atmosphere to the living room. Not only was the house a wonderland, but my grandmother’s cooking was lauded as the best in LA (that bit of info was according to my grandfather…). So, not only could we play with grotesque movie props in a funky smelling basement, but my grandmother’s turkey and stuffing brought the whole family together for a good cause: eating damn fine food. Her accompanying sides caused a raucus commotion at the table– fights broke out over the last bread rolls and the mashed potatoes could bring even the strongest man to tears of elation. Thanksgiving was the best as a kid.
Eventually my grandmother grew tired of cooking and threw the whole tradition down the toilet. So we started going to the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills for Thanksgiving brunch instead. I was furious the first time I heard the news. How were we supposed to entertain ourselves without Disney cartoons and cheesy tv props?? And how could we sneek peaks at our grandfather’s old playboys??? What about family rituals and perseverance of….of….goddamn, I didn’t care about tradition, but I did care about sweet potatoes topped with gooey, browned marshmallows!! I cried and told my parents how awful it was to attend a brunch at a swanky hotel. This wasn’t what I had bargained for. But, after walking through the marble entrance of the hotel, I began reconsidering. Then, after passing through four rooms of glorious food items from around the world, I repented for my earlier tantrum.
I was at the buffet tables before we had even reached our table. I returned with a plate piled high to my chin. My mom scolded me from across the table and told me I didn’t have to look so greedy, and instead could take new plates as needed. So I had thirteen plates. And every year after that, there was a competition between me and my siblings for who could eat the most plates. We would start with shrimp cocktail and crab legs, move on to sushi, possibly eat a Belgian waffle (a must for my mom), a few salads, possibly an Eggs Benedict, and then on to the prime rib, turkey, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce…and of course a few desserts. I don’t know how I managed to walk my completely overstuffed body out of there, but every year I outdid myself.
Now that I live in New York and work as a cook, it’s not always easy to make it home for my favorite holiday. Last year, instead, I spent it with a few friends from work. This year, we’re turning it into an annual event. I am going to miss the Four Seasons feast, but starting a new, gluttonous East coast tradition could be equally as exciting.
In preparation for tomorrow, I called up Seoyoung and arranged a pre-Thanksgiving meal. I headed my father’s words of advice and bought way, way too much food today. We headed to H Mart in Woodside, Queens and bought sauteed octopus, japchae (a noodle dish), fresh house-made tofu, fermented rice dessert cakes and kimchi. Back at Seoyoung’s house, we made a fishcake soup, black rice and added side dishes of fish stomach and fish roe. We talked, caught up and ate for hours. We both work such different schedules now that there was much gossip to be chatted about and work happenings to be derided. We eventually fell back in our seats, patted our tummies, and finished up with coffee (zinged up with a bit of salt, thanks to Aki and Alex) and some grapes.
It’s now three hours past our pre-holiday feast, Korean style, and my stomach is still hurting. My pops would be proud, and I know I’ll be able to do the fried Turkey justice tomorrow at my friend’s house. I aim to impress and look forward to this new tradition of Korean pre-readying and for the new New York traditions.