Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009 - One for the Books

Some people use their blogs to make everything seem perfect while their lives are imploding. Some people use blogs to try to convince the world that they are worthy of love and respect. Some people are incredibly real - those are the ones I love to read. I try to document things as they really are - for the sake of my family history. I want my girls to look back and see the reality of their lives, not just the sugar-coated version that will look like I was the perfect mother in the perfect marriage with the perfectly clean house. That doesn't mean that every little flaw is exposed, but that the essence of the situation is caught.

I say all of this now because this post will include it all: the sickening perfection and the horror of it all. But this was a great Thanksgiving, regardless of the eventual outcome. We cooked, we laughed, we cleaned.

We approached this Thanksgiving, our first alone with just the six of us, our first in Las Vegas, our first where the four girls and I would be doing 100% of the cooking 100% from scratch, as an opportunity to establish tradition. The tradition we established? That the process is more important and fun then the outcome.

Let us begin a week and a half prior. In Family Home Evening, everyone was given the opportunity to make requests for the menu. I spent the next week fine tuning and organizing and shopping. A few days before Thanksgiving, we met again for the assignments: everyone would help. Everyone would have several jobs. All went great. The girls were excited to embark on this new journey, the turkey was on sale, the recipes were tracked down. I made a schedule for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday that would distribute all of the work so the Thanksgiving could be relaxing.

Tuesday we began. We made sugar cookies, put together our goodie plates to deliver to new friends and teachers. We got out all the ingredients, recipes, and cooking equipment. We did all the dishes so we could cook in a clean environment.

Here was the schedule:

Appetizers: ready by 11:00
Eric's Bacon-Wrapped Scallops – McKayla (Thursday 9:00am - make marinade, marinate scallops for one hour, wrap in bacon, skewer, cook)
Kirsti's Artichoke-Cheese Dip in a Bread bowl – Madison (Wed – chop artichoke hearts, mix together dip, store in fridge, Thursday 9:00am prep bread bowl, filling with mixture, cook and toast sourdough)
Crudites with Ranch Dip – Monterey (Wed – make Ranch, cut carrots, prep celery, Thursday 9:00 am – cut cucumbers, red pepper, open olives, wash tomatoes; arrange on platter)

Dinner: eat at 3:00
Maya's Favorite Salad – Maya (Thursday 1:30 prep salad)
Truffle Butter Turkey - McKayla & Madison (Thursday 9:00 am prep and start to roast)
Sweet Potato Souffle – McKayla (Wednesday – prep, Thursday – bake at 1:00)
My Daddy's Mashed Potatoes & Gravy - McKayla & Madison (Wed night – peel potatoes, Thursday – 1:00 start potatoes; start gravy)
Stuffing-Stuffed Mushrooms - Maya & Monterey (Wed – prep filling, wash mushrooms, assemble, Thursday – bake at 2:30)
Orange Zested Cranberry Sauce – Madison (Wed – make, store in fridge)
Homemade Rolls - McKayla & Madison (Start as soon as Turkey is in the oven)

Dessert: serve at 5:00
Pumpkin Pecan Pie – Maya (Bake on Wed night)
Leaf and Turkey Sugar Cookies – All (Bake on Tues; decorate on Thurs)
Brownies – Maya (Bake on Wed)

Everything went perfectly. I mean it. We all worked together. There were no last minute runs to the grocery store. Nothing burned. The Pecan Pie set beautifully. The Cranberry Sauce could have won a throw down with Bobby Flay. No cuts. No broken dishes or fingernails. Everyone got along. I did forget to buy the ingredients for the salad, but honestly, we could live with that. We ate all the veggies on the veggie tray before dinner so I think we were in great shape veggie wise. The rolls were a dream.

We put everything on a small buffet table. At the long dinner table, we kept the rolls and butter close at hand.

We sat down to dinner. I was so proud of the girls. They really worked hard and they were proud of everything they had accomplished. I truly believe that when children cook their own food, they are more inclined to try new and different food. Everyone ate everything. It was beautiful. We were able to have relaxing dinner conversation, without having to worry about impressing anyone (that is code for some extended burping contests) everyone was positive and complimentary towards every ones cooking efforts. We had good conversations about what we liked about having Thanksgiving this way and what we missed about not having it with extended family. Everything was very positive. Dinner took a while. It was glorious and lovely.

I should have known something was about to go drastically wrong.

Maya and Monterey wanted to eat brownies. I told them to go ahead. They went over to the buffet table and there was a bit of a struggle over a particularly large, luscious looking brownie. A few words were exchanged, a little struggle and boom. The table went down. The food flew up. One side of the legs had buckled. Everything was down. The pie was completely saved. It landed right side up, away from the broken ceramic bowls. Everything else was on the floor. Mixed together.

This follows in a long line of holiday disasters. I immediately thought about A Christmas Story and the dogs eating the turkey, They ended up in a Chinese restaurant eating Peking Duck with the head still attached. Then there was Christmas Vacation where the turkey was so dry and there was cat food in the jello. There was even The Brady Bunch wedding where the boys' dog was chasing the girl's cat and the wedding cake went down.

Then there were the extended family stories: the devilled eggs made with cat pee, multiple throwing up stories, a few fights, some drunk extended family, and a few others I could mention but won't because the people involved are still alive and kicking.

All we could do was laugh.

So what do I have to be grateful for? We had already finished dinner. We did not end up in an emergency room (see the 4th of July post.) Most of the turkey was still in the kitchen. The rolls were not involved at all in the incident. There was no yelling or screaming or blaming (except that Monterey claimed that either Jesus or a ghost did it - but the deflection of blame is almost an art form for Monterey.) We all worked together to clean it up, sweep, mop, throw away without anyone being asked. We even saved a few brownies. The pie was safe. None of my beautiful Polish pottery was broken. The only broken dishes were old and not really my favorite things anyway. We probably did not need the calories from all those yummy leftovers anyway.

Something always has to go wrong. This was simply our homage to Murphy's Law. But I am so glad that THAT went wrong instead of so many other things that could have gone wrong. We will always remember this Thanksgiving. Without that incident, this would have been a blur in a couple of years. Now we can always look back and laugh and say "Remember the time when all the food went down and we had no leftovers?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thanksgiving Options

Most years of our marriage we have gone to my husband's family for Thanksgiving dinner. This had many advantages, namely, incredible food. I mean this was always a fantastic, free-for-all, feast. The dinner would be divided up among all those who were interested in cooking. Some years, because of travelling, all I had to do or could do was just show up. Since so many of us were living locally, we did a massive division of labor. One person might handle the appetizers, another might have dessert, someone else might do all the veggies, etc. Other times we just divided dish by dish. The division of duties is a good thing: everyone could specialize in their own part and not mass produce mediocre dishes. As if that was not enough, they are all great cooks. Everything was always delicious. The only downside: too many and too much. How could a stomach possibly become so engorged and not even get a taste of everything? (By the way, that is not really a huge downside.)

This year, we are just a family of six. We met together and at Family Home Evening we discussed our options. I wanted to be sure that everyone had everything they wanted. Ryan suggested we go to Claim Jumper for our Thanksgiving dinner. He was just thinking of me: no prep, no dishes, no clean up, free refills, etc. What a thoughtful husband. If the husbands of this world planned holiday dinners, we would all go out to dinner. I thought that maybe we could cook every one's favorite parts of the meal and then get a restaurant to provide the things we really were not passionate about. I got the menu from Claim Jumper and Ryan and I perused it. Again, he just wanted to eat there. But what about our dinnertime banter? In a restaurant, we act one way, at home another. That was appealing to him as well. Somehow he doesn't appreciate that the girls will spontaneously break into song at a subtle suggestion. Someday, when they all move away, he will miss that.

As I pondered his offer and the different options, I could not stomach the idea of going out. As I looked at the sides we could order, it did not sit well either. I am a cook. I love to cook. Most of the things I make, people seem to enjoy. All around us, we see that cooking is becoming a lost art. Suddenly it hit me: this was not about ease or tradition or about endless refills of Dr. Pepper. This was about me teaching my daughters how to cook.

In a Church Welfare Training Meeting earlier in the year, this is what Julie Beck, the Relief Society General President, said:

"How do we become self-reliant? We become self reliant through obtaining sufficient knowledge, education, and literacy; by managing money and resources wisely, being spiritually strong, preparing for emergencies and eventualities; and by having physical health and social and emotional well-being. So what skills do we need to help us become self reliant? It was important for my grandmother to know how to kill and pluck a chicken. I have not yet had the necessity to kill and pluck a chicken. However, even in the early days of the Church, Brigham Young pled with the sisters to learn to prevent illness in families, establish home industries, and learn accounting and bookkeeping and other practical skills. Those principles still apply today. Education continues to be vitally important. Each of us is a teacher and a learner, and literacy, technical, and reasoning skills are a daily requirement. There is also a great need for better communication skills in marriages and families, and good parenting skills have never been more important. We also see an increase of debt and consumerism in the world.

I asked several bishops what self-reliance skills the sisters in their wards needed most, and they said budgeting. Women need to understand the implications of buying on credit and not living within a budget. The second skill bishops listed was cooking. Meals prepared and eaten at home generally cost less, are healthier, and contribute to stronger family relationships."

I made up my mind: not only will this be completely homemade, but each daughter will help me with different parts of the menu. This way, they are involved and they are learning how to cook, bake, and plan a large, detailed, multi-course meal. Since we normally partition the meal, they have never been involved with those aspects. They have never prepped a turkey since that was always done before we arrived. I have done a whole Thanksgiving dinner by myself several times. This is what I need to teach them.

So here is the menu and the division of duties:

Eric's Bacon-Wrapped Scallops - McKayla
Kirsti's Artichoke-Cheese Dip in a Breadbowl - Madison
Crudite with Ranch Dip - Monterey

Maya's Favorite Salad - Maya
Truffle Butter Turkey - McKayla & Madison
Sweet Potato Souffle - McKayla
My Daddy's Mashed Potatoes & Gravy - McKayla & Madison
Stuffing-Stuffed Mushrooms - Maya & Monterey
Orange Zested Cranberry Sauce - Madison
Homemade Rolls - McKayla & Madison

Pumpkin Pecan Pie - Monterey
Leaf and Turkey Sugar Cookies - All
Brownies - Maya

Each girl will help make the shopping list for their item, plan when we should make it (including prep in advance stuff) decide on the serving dish, etc. Everyone will work in the kitchen.

Oh yeah, I forgot one thing. Ryan can take care of the beverages. Baby steps for him. Next year he is going to get something he actually has to make with his own two hands.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thanksgiving Five Years Ago

Five years ago, we had just moved to the Palm Springs area. Our life had changed drastically. We had two under two and Ryan was taking the responsibility of being the sole-breadwinner while I was adjusting to being a stay-at-home mom for the first time. I had attended a Church Relief Society meeting where Jackie Simpson had shared and idea of kind of a time capsule concept. You would survey the family and then in five years or ten or twenty, reflect back on what people where thinking at that time. Some things change. Some things do not. You could ask questions or just give a prompt. The point is to get people sharing their thoughts and state-of-mind and ideas. I had suffered with the death of my father the year previous to this and felt that I wanted this information. I would have loved to have had this survey from my dad.

Here are the questions and the results:

What is your favorite thing to do on Thanksgiving weekend?
Ryan - golf, spend time with the family, sleep
Lisa - eat, decorate for Christmas
McKayla - watch movies with my family
Madison - I like to eat with my family
Ryan's sister Melissa - cook
Ryan's sister Kym - eat, go to movies, early AM shopping, being with family
Ryan's brother Matt - eat, go to the movies, watch the Skins game
Matt's wife Meagan - eat, sleep, have fun w/ the family
Ryan's dad Tom - eat, watch football games, play golf, kiss my granddaughters
Ryan's mom Diane - spending time with family

What are your five favorite things to eat on Thanksgiving?
Ryan - yams, rolls, potatoes, mac&cheese, dips
Lisa - Caress family rolls, my dad's mashed potatoes and gravy, yams w/ pecan praline topping, cranberry sauce, deep-fried turkey
McKayla - corn, turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce
Madison - cranberries, turkey, vegetables, fruit, mac&cheese
Melissa - mashed potatoes, yams, rolls, fried turkey, gravy
Kym - yams, deep-fried turkey, rolls, pie, pie
Matt - turkey, gravy, artichoke dip, rolls, candied yams & Henry's (root beer)
Meagan - green bean supreme, deep fried turkey, potatoes, stuffin', any of Kym & Missy's delicious creations
Tom - pumpkin pie cheesecake, turkey, wheat rolls, stuffing, Lisa's dip

What is your favorite Thanksgiving memory?
Ryan - going to Grandma's (Ruth)
Lisa - cooking for a whole ward on my mission in Taiwan. We got 2 Butterballs through the black market. The elders (4 of them) ate one whole turkey while my companion and I did the last minute shopping. The second turkey was enough for the whole ward since everyone just wanted a little taste.
McKayla - my first Thanksgiving
Madison - when I started to like mac&cheese
Melissa - eating at Grandma & Grandpa Caress' when they lived at Pine Terrace with all my relatives
Kym - same every year: cooking & lots of food & laughter around the table
Matt - Grandma Caress yelling at everybody and saying "nobody loves me" and walking out of Uncle Jack's house
Meagan - last year, helping in the kitchen w/ Kym and Melissa, my fabulous sisters
Tom - this one
Diane - whenever the whole family is together

If you could take your whole family for a "Destination Thanksgiving" where would you take us all?
Ryan - We are already here (referring to the Palm Springs area)
Lisa - New York City. We would go to the Macy's Parade, have dinner, then shop in NYC on Fri and Sat.
McKayla - NYC!
Madison - Disneyland
Melissa - Rome; for Pizza
Kym - Jackson Hole, WY
Matt - Hilton Head, SC
Meagan - the temple or a movie ... or both!
Tom - here in Bermuda Dunes
Diane - here in Bermuda Dunes

Do you have a favorite Thanksgiving song, scripture, and/or story that you would like to share?
Lisa - "Count Your Blessings" and "That's What Turkeys Have For Thanksgiving"
Madison - "The Turkey Woogie" and "That's What Turkeys Have For Thanksgiving"
Melissa - "Come Ye Thankful People"
Meagan - "Five Little Turkeys" "I'm a Nut" "I Saw a Little Turkey" and "Because I Have Been Given Much"
Tom - Alma 28, "We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet"

What are the five things you are most thankful for?
Ryan - wife, kids, golf, job, family
Lisa - my children, my husband, my whole family, the gospel, my health
McKayla - family, food, chocolate, malls
Madison - my family, friends, house, money, love
Melissa - family, gospel, home, friends, education and opportunity
Kym - my testimony, my family, my health, my talents, my hot bod j/k!:)
Matt - the gospel of Jesus Christ, my family, my freedom, my beautiful wife, health
Meagan - Matt (my most lovely, adorable & hot husband) the gospel, family, sleep, holidays with the family
Tom - Jesus Christ and His Atoning sacrifice, my wife & family, Redlands Temple, granddaughters, family history and the spirit of Elijah
Diane - the temple

Things have changed in the Caress Family: Matt and Meagan have welcomed a son and daughter, Kym is now married with a son, Tom and Diane moved houses, and we moved away. Maya and Monterey were too young to express anything but hunger, sleep, and a full diaper; let alone opinions. It is always fun to look back and think about how some things change and others stay the same.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Welcome to Las Vegas ... again

Woo! What a day.

We started out going to a Chinese restaurant for breakfast. An Elder, Duane Frizell, that I served with in the Taiwan Taipei mission happens to be in our new congregation at church and alerted us to this rare find: real Chinese breakfast. It is my favorite , but so rare to find. We decided we were dying to try it and we were dying to have the girls try it so we ventured over to the Chinatown here in the Las Vegas area.

When we walked in, the waitress explained that they were not really open for breakfast. We could see other patrons eating so we asked again. She handed us a menu in Chinese with very bad broken English translations to show us what they served. We were thrilled and told her that is what we came for. She gave us a table and we noticed we were the only non-Chinese is the whole place. That alone was very exciting because then I knew we must be in a really good place.

We tried to decipher through the bad translations, but it was easier to just read the Chinese. We found a few things we wanted and motioned that we were ready to order. We explained what we wanted and asked a few questions. It wasn't until we broke out in Chinese that she finally relaxed and started understanding what it was that we wanted.

I ordered Dou Jang 豆漿 which is a type of warm soybean milk. It is very traditional to start the day with a bowl of warm dou jang. It tastes different from soy milk you would find in the stores because it is made fresh daily and served with a very coarse sugar so you can sweeten it to your taste. I tasted and sweeten until I felt it was just right. I spooned a little into the teacups so each girl could try it. They did not care for it. It is an acquired taste, but I love it. My Chinese companions and I would drink it every morning. We would order it warm on cold days and cold on hot days. One gulp and I was back in China. I showed the girls that every single person in the place was sitting there with their bowl of dou jang.

I ordered 3 dan bings 蛋餅 which is a cross between a crepe and tortilla which a scrambled egg and green onions are cooked with it. It is sooo good. The girls loved it immediately. You can eat it with a little soy sauce to add a little saltiness to it. It is one of those dishes that I liked the moment I had it and I knew they would too. I probably ate dan bings about 75% of the time for breakfast. They would be a big hit in America, if anyone wanted to try.

I ordered Sau Bing 燒餅 which is a flaky sesame bread. I used to order it with a scrambled egg in it "sau bing jya dan." It was my favorite but you could not find it in every breakfast shop - only some. Again, the girls loved it immediately.

I ordered Mantou 饅頭 which is Steamed Bread. Instead of baking it in an oven (which doesn't really exist is their kitchens) they steam it. It has a totally different texture, and a slightly sweet taste. Ryan used to order it "mantou jya dan" - with a scrambled egg in it.

I ordered Tsung You Bing 蔥油餅 which is a Green Onion Cake. I actually have a recipe for them and I make them occasionally for my girls. They love it. The ones in the restaurant were so much better. I discovered that I am too conservative on the oil and I probably don't have the heat just right. They loved them so much that at the end of the meal, we had to order one more. It is kind of like a very flaky, thick tortilla. But the way it is assembled with green onions, salt and a dash of sesame oil makes it savory and highly flavorful. All four girls went nuts for it.

I ordered Dumplings
蒸餃 which are pork steamed dumplings. They had a little too much ginger for the girls, but my girls are dumpling girls. They preferred them boiled in the traditional way, but this was more like the street vendor style. They were good, but not something I usually ate for breakfast.

Afterwards we had a little talk with the waitress about the kinds of food we could find for lunch and dinner. We have total confidence that we have found a truly authentic place. We are very excited about this insider tip. Anyone who wants to try, let us know. You will not be disappointed. The girls thanked us all day for taking them and McKayla has decided that she wants to serve a mission to Taiwan.

From their we parked at the MGM Grand and walked through to get to M & M World. The girls have been wanting to go since they saw it the first time on our scouting trip to find a house. They loved four floors of everything that you could possibly think to do with an M & M or the motif. Of course, since M & M are their signature candy - with four M girls, it was inevitable, they wanted to purchase the whole store. We got out with a bag full of unique colors and flavors and I'm sure that several finds of the day will end up on their Christmas list. We saw the M & M 3D movie, which the little ones loved and the rest of us tolerated.

We went next door to Coke World and enjoyed two floors of fashion and flavors and furnishings. We wanted to try the 16 different soda flavors from around the world, but Ryan talked us into the 8 different float flavors. Ice cream makes everything taste better. We loved the traditional root beer and coke. The Fanta Orange and Mello Yellow were also favorites.

From there, we went to the legendary "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign for our Christmas picture. (This is a taste of it. I won't publish the one we will be using until after Christmas.) This is just a tease. We wanted to get them sent early this year, because of the move. The weather was perfect.

Home again for our Saturday chores: laundry and cleaning, more unpacking and organizing. But what a fun half day of enjoying our new home city.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Short post about something way too funny to forget ...

My father passed away about six and a half years ago. He was very, very close to McKayla and Madison. He took care of them while I taught school. He would take them on hikes, out to breakfast, to Chuck E. Cheese, and everywhere else. They loved him very much and and have very fond memories. One of the last things my father said to me was "Who is going to take care of the girls?" I was a little insulted and replied that, as their mother, I would. He seemed somewhat satisfied with the answer.

McKayla and Madison often talk about Grandpa Frank to their younger sisters. Maya and Monterey feel cheated that they did not have time with Grandpa Frank. They are right: they were cheated. But alas, such is life.

Yesterday was Ryan's dad's birthday. As Ryan dialed up, he told everyone to talk to Grandpa and wish him a happy birthday. The phone was passed to each girl. When it reached Monterey, she took the phone. Before she put it up to her ear, she asked the question: "Which Grandpa is this?" Our unanimous reply: "The one that is alive!" Her reply: "Oh, okay."

That would have been some phone call had it been the other one.

Monday, November 9, 2009


I love Thanksgiving, and not just for the food. I love the idea of a holiday that is focused on gratitude. It is not about gifts or cards or decorations, although the holiday that comes directly after is all about all that and we LOVE it. But the idea of being able to focus on what we are thankful for is a beautiful thing. Aside from the obsession with the food, it has not been overly commercialized. Sure, some people focus on just the food and even call it "Turkey Day" (which is what it is, so no bagging here) but I love calling it Thanksgiving so I can remember the gratitude part. Some people think of football or parades or the day-after-shopping: all these things are part of it and add to the fun and family and festivities. But ultimately, the core of this holiday is about pondering the things we are thankful for.

It is sometimes in the absence of something we love, that makes us aware of how much we cherish something. For example, I never think of my health when I feel fine. But when I am sick or I have a headache or a canker sore, all the sudden I am acutely aware of how important my health is. There are times when I feel stripped of something, and then I appreciate how good it is. I wish I could remember every day how important those things are to me, but the busyness of life usually does not allow for pondering.

The experience of moving has been an eye-opener for me. There are so many things and people I am grateful for, now that they are no longer around. I really appreciate so many people and circumstances now, that I took for granted before.

Our Thanksgiving will be a little different this year. Instead of spending it with Ryan's family and gorging on a most amazing feast, we will spend it as our little family of six. We will attempt to develop our own traditions instead of relying on the traditions of others. I am not sure what will be doing or how we will do it. It is a bit of a blank slate right now, but I'm sure it will evolve as it goes.