Archive for the 'Food' Category

Thanks for Nothing / Everything

I celebrated this Thanksgiving at two long-standing Oakland events: Thanks for Nothing, the legendary potluck of punk debauchery, and my family’s annual Day-After-Thanksgiving party, legendary in its own right. Both events were a little less epic this year, with an intimacy that reminded me of what’s good about Thanksgiving and about family—as untraditional as they may come.

Anyone in the East Bay who’s ever donned liberty spikes and a studded anything has gone to Thanks for Nothing. And possibly passed out at it. Now in its 18th year, the Thanksgiving potluck is an Oakland punk tradition, a place for all the family-less kids in black to come together, at picnic tables under jimmied lights, and create their own family.

Of course, by “kids” I mean “punks” and not kids at all, anymore. These are the die-hards, wearing smile wrinkles and old band shirts—the folks that, once the scene-ness melts away, once all the other folks have grown out of what was just a phase, are still there, purely for the love of it. Punk may be mostly dead, but it’s not all-the-way dead; it just lives in the hearts of a small handful. And, on Thanksgiving, in an East Oakland backyard.

Thanks for Nothing has taken on a larger-than-life status; the woman that puts in on is convinced that even if she were out of town one year, people would still show up. They didn’t pump it too much this year—no flyers or MySpace posts, just word-of-mouth—and the result was a smaller, friendlier crowd, that was also a bit tamer. The event historically gets increasingly raucous as the evening progresses; as the steam from the turkey table cools and the toddlers konk out, staggering, slurring sing-alongs ensue (among other things). This year, the pot food table was nearly empty and the jar of homemade Bailey’s went fast, but the Jell-O shots were plentiful, tossed around in a haphazard game of catch that somehow didn’t end in neon goo being splattered across someone’s head.

Despite the uber-punk name, this year’s Thanks for Nothing felt more about community than anything else. Family, as most travelers know, isn’t really about blood lines; it’s got little to do with genes or ethnicity or even, as we learn on the road, nationality. Family’s about people that share similar values and perspectives coming together and sharing, growing together. (And at Thanks for Nothing, singing along to Cock Sparrer together.) It sounds more one-love than punk, more Berkeley than Oakland, but sometimes it takes unexpected manifestations to drive a point home.

But most of my “family” growing up wasn’t about blood lines—a lot of Californians’ aren’t. My parents moved my toddler brother and my infant self to California with only one blood relative within 2,000 miles. Once my uncle passed away, it was really just the four of us for holidays. Plus an ever-growing band of fellow Bay Area orphans. It seemed that my dad’s first couple of years in the fire department, he kept having to work Thanksgiving (turkey at the fire house!). So we started having all our family friends over the day after, when we’d sit back and talk and laugh and eat for hours. We invited everyone, and it became a kind of neighborhood affair. A tradition was born, and yesterday, carried into its 22nd year.

Like Thanks for Nothing, we don’t really need to invite people anymore; everyone just knows to show up. Charles deep-fries two turkeys in the driveway, Karen and Jamal make the marshmellow sweet potatoes, Nhu and Jacobo bring the bread pudding, my brother makes the famous firehouse Caesar (I used to make the vegan entree, but those days are long gone…). My parents’ small bungalow overflows; there’s an incessant wait for the one bathroom and a warm glow from the fireplace. It’s consistently one of my favorite days of the year.

The event was smaller this year, just under 60 people, and I had a couple bittersweet moments, missing people who used to come—people who’ve moved, who we’ve lost touch with, but mostly people who’ve passed away. But at the same time, there were folks there that I’ve grown up with, that I’ve known my whole life, that are the aunts and uncles and cousins I otherwise wouldn’t have really had, so many miles and states away.

Family is one of the most important things to me, as traditional or untraditional as mine may be regarded. Of course, much has been written about the “demise” of the American family, and holidays like Thanksgiving hold a particular weight for those from untraditional or un-intact families. But I’d argue that the American family isn’t crumbling, just reshaping; seeing as though this guy got a book deal out of the concept, I don’t think I’m alone. And as travelers know, the traditions of a family are some of the best glimpses you’ll get into a culture—whether it’s making stuffing with your play-cousin, or pounding Jell-O shots with punks. It may not be a Norman Rockwell painting, but it’s as close as some of us get.

Kimmo´s Culinary Quest in Madrid

Shopping for produce

Shopping for produce

Kimmo sighs a cloud of smoke and looks into his half-full pint glass. ¨I told her one and a half months, I´ll try it. Then,¨ he shrugs and manages a smile ringed with worry lines.

It´s one am, and we´re washing down the 4th night of Doña Antonia´s grand reopening at an endearingly tacky Irish bar in the cobbled heart of Madrid. The red plaid wallpaper and grime-covered Guiness mirrors seem to agree with Kimmo, who looks 10 years younger out of his white-starched chef´s jacket.

Kimmo, Matt and I at one time all worked for the same 5-restaurant company that encompassed, at varying times, 3 SF-Chronicle Top 100 restaurants. That is to say, we´ve all been well-indoctorinated with the Alice-Waters-inspired culinary philospohy of organic, locally sourced ingredients. Ours paths have crossed for one heavy-skied Sunday in Madrid, where Matt, some friends and I feasted on the kick-ass creations of Kimmo´s new menu. It was one of the best meals I´d had in awhile.

But, apparently, Madridanos don´t share our American enthusiasm.

¨Madridanos,¨Matt tells me, ¨aren´t very discerning diners. It´s more about atmosphere than the actual food.¨ Kimmo nods in semi-forlorned agreement.

A recent transplant from the Bay Area culinary scene, Kimmo´s been trying to reconcile his California-cuisine sensibility with Madrid´s affection for over-salted sameness. It´s been 6 months, 3 restaurants, and so far, it hasn´t gone splendidly.

Listening to Kimmo´s qualms and Matt´s frustrations, I begin to realize that culinary values and expectations in California are wildly different than those in Spain.

Matt, an ex-bar-manager turned handle-bar-moustached vagabonder, has been frustrated with Spanish service and quality for the past 7 months. Kimmo, a sweet-faced Scandinavian socialist who´s vowed not to die in either the US or Finland, has been struggling against the low standards and unadventurous expectations of Madrid´s diners and restauranteurs. A chef by trade, he´s been hired as the head chef and sole cook of the newly reopened Doña Antonio near Plaza Santa Ana.

Kimmo´s creative menu includes untraditional dishes like mussels with chorizo and garbanzo beans, a sort of inventiveness valued in the Bay Area. Put the same old things on the menu there, and you can bet on your clintele steadily plummeting. In Madrid, it´s the opposite. For the 4th consecutive night, Kimmos´s watched nervously as potential diners sip on coktails (he insisted on expanding the beer and wine bar to include mojitos and caipirinhas), peruse the menu, look confused, and leave without ordering.

¨When it comes to tapas restaurants, the kind younger Madridanos go to,¨ Matt says, ¨I usually don´t even have to look at the menu. They´re pretty much all the same.¨

The increasingly anxious owner of Doña Antonia wants a more typical menu; in the previous day´s blow-out, Kimmo conceeded to including bravas and croquetas on the menu. ¨She tells me,¨Kimmo says of the owner, ¨ ´You can do them your way.´ But no one in Madrid wants to try lemon aioli. And they haven´t even heard to romesco!¨

Another problem Kimmo´s encountered is that modern Madridanos seem to have no familiarity with the Spanish cuisine he learned in the States. Filet of fish with romesco? No go. Paella without seafood? Won´t fly. Additionally, the organic craze has far from set in. An almost nauseatingly hip trend in the US, the inherent taste superioirty and sustainable sensibility means nothing in Spain. ¨There´s no idea that you might want to spend more for better ingredients. I can´t say, ´The meat is expensive because it´s organic.´ They won´t care; they say, ´Find it for cheaper.´ So I have to try to cook with rubbery arugula, carrots that don´t taste like carrots.¨

Kimmo´s decided to give it 6 weeks. He´ll do what the owner wants: put the typical dishes on the menu and try to make the best of less-than-optimum ingredients. Will he eventually conceede and adapt to the Madrid way of dining, or will he maintain his high standards and continue the seemingly impossible struggle to raise diners´expectations, lower their inhibitions and up the ante of the Madrid tapas scene?

There´s no way to know, not now. But tonight we can kick back in the thickening smoke creeping through the psuedo-pub as the crowd thins and the evening grows damp and heavy, and let it all go. Afterall, tomorrow´s Monday, Kimmo´s one day off.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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