26 Dec 2008

Christmas Traditions part 2: the feasts!

O.k., so the fact that I'm stuffed from over-indulging on some damn good meals over the past couple of days probably has something to do with the choice of subject... just sayin'... ;o)

Be it for Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas Day lunch (or both for some families... scary thought! where's the peptobismol!), bringing the family together to sit down to a beautifully set table overflowing with a more or less elaborate feast seems to be a given in most places. Only thing that changes much is the menu! In my family we go for the Christmas Eve dinner, Spanish side winning over the American side. When we lived in the States we'd do both, going over to my Grandmother's for Christmas Day lunch, can't remember that far back though...

The obvious place to start would be the famous TURKEY DINNER. Famous because even if you've never had one, we've all probably seen one up on the big screen in all those (Hollywood) Christmas movies (more on those another day). Big U.S. tradition (probably 'cause the poor bird is native to North America), just about everyone I know across the pond has one of those in the oven on Christmas Day. Recipes change from family to family, but I don't see how you can change much except the stuffing. In my house we just do a basic crushed-dried-bread stuffing with onion and celery and raisins and walnuts and I don't remember what else and plenty of spices. My uncle and aunt in Florida apparently stuffed theirs with duck and chicken this year (am curious to hear how that came out!). While my aunt here in Spain (we've hooked her on the idea of stuffed turkeys this year) has given it a Spanish twist by stuffing the bird with the basic ingredients of a traditional "pelota navideña" (ground beef, raisins, apples and I dunno what else). Hmm, even some of my friends in Belgium were giving turkey a try this year!
An alternative (or sometimes supplement) to the turkey would be a roast ham in some families. In our case we had it in a second "Christmas" meal today (26th) when family came to visit.
So, there's the main dish, what shall we accompany it with? Keeping with what I know: Waldorf salad (apples, walnuts, grapes, celery and some mayo), candied yams (yummmmmm! my favourite! sliced sweet potatoes over some butter, brown sugar and honey -with a bit more sprinkled on top- baked in some orange juice), stuffing (from the bird), some green vegetable (my dad likes peas, I prefer broccoli), mashed potatoes and gravy. That sounds about right. Ouf! Just listing it all makes me feel bloated again! :p
And that's not even talking about appetizers! And after all that comes dessert!!! I don't know of any "traditional" dessert stateside. We've usually had some kind of fruit pies (lemon or cherry or pumpkin) or flan. And to complete the Spanish touch, turrón! Plenty of wine with dinner and champaign (or cava, Spain's sparkling wine) with dessert.

Hmmm, now that I think of it I don't really know of any other "traditional" Christmas meals! I should probably write my friends in France and Belgium and ask them... but we'll see if I get around to it. :p

In Spain there are various options for the main course, alternating between roast beef or lamb (ternera o cordero asado), suckling pig (cochinillo asado), a kind of stew with Christmas meatballs (cocido con pelotas) or seafood up north. What's typical is to have some form of shellfish among the first course (be it shells or gambas or... lots of options!), and definitely the un-missable turrón among the desserts! If there's a single national Spanish Christmas tradition, it's CAVA and TURRON (Spanish champaign) for dessert during the Christmas. No pueden faltar en la mesa! Each year there are massive advertising campaigns for the two products. The two main cava rivals try outspending each other to produce elaborate TV commercials (that are a frequent conversation topic: "which did you prefer, the Codorniù or Freixenet ad?", here's a blog post -in Spanish- discussing last year's Freixenet ad, directed by none other than Scorsese! includes the full 6' version of the ad). And the turrón ads hark back to a "family" theme; for many years one brand's catchphrase (and jingle) was "vuelve, a casa vuelve, por Navidad" (return home for Christmas, playing on the fact that family comes together, and turrón is usually only eaten at this time of the year). So, what is turrón you ask? It's a sort of nougat, originally from my region of Spain (province of Alicante), and the basic ingredients are almonds, egg whites, sugar and honey. Wikipedia lists the oldest recipe found as dating from the 16th century, but says it's been known as a product of Jijona since the 15th century, (more info on Spanish wikipedia). There are two traditional varieties: "hard" (turrón de Alicante) and "soft" (turrón de Jijona), the first being made with whole almonds and requiring you to litterally smash it with a hammer or by banging it on the table to break up the tablet, while the second is made with crushed almonds reduced to a paste (easier to eat, but stickier). Although variations on the theme can be found in many other countries (and notably around the Mediterranean basin), only the stuff made here can be legally called turrón, they've got a patent on the name I think? It's a "denominación de origen" (like you can only call a sparkling wine champaign if it comes from the region of Champagne in France).

That's about all I can think of... maybe I should have done some more research? Nah, this would be more interesting if anyone reading this would share some of their traditional family meals in the comments! ;o)

In any case, BON APETIT! :o)

Here's a clip from this year's Freixenet ad, with the Spanish Olympic silver-medallist synchronised swimming team:

ditto for Codorniù:

22 Dec 2008

Christmas Traditions part 1: Dec. 22 - Lotería de Navidad!

"'Tis the season to be jolly, falalalala la la la laaaaaaa..."

It's that time of the year again! When colourful lights brighten up city streets and trees. Festive music is heard all around. People look for the ideal gift for a loved one. And we turn our homes upside down with decorations. My favourite time of the year! I get that warm and fuzzy feeling inside, people seem happier (or at least make an effort to appear so), families come together (unless a member is too far away, snif!). Wonderful!

It's a time of traditions, which vary from country to country, from family to family. So I thought I'd share a few here over the holidays. Some personal, some national.

Today's tradition is a big one here in Spain: La Lotería de Navidad!
It's held every year on December 22nd in front of notaries and open to the public (and shown live on TV), with the numbers and prizes sung by children of the neighbouring school San Ildefonso. Numbers become available in July, but the lottery frenzy really kicks in with December and the beginning of the publicity campaign. Estimations for Christmas Lottery sales come out to +/- 200€ per person! It's such a part of the public conciousness that you'll hear people commenting on the TV ads or asking each other if they've seen it yet. Here's one of the first ads with "el calvo", a bald guy distributing luck and dreams in the Christmas Lottery adds during ~7 yrs:

85000 numbers are available, and Wikipedia lists the prizes (1787 total, since 2005) - for a grand total of ~ 2142 million euros - as:
  • 1 first prize of 3.000.000 euros, known as "El Gordo" (the "Fat One").
  • 1 second prize of 1.000.000 euros.
  • 1 third prize of 500.000 euros.
  • 2 fourth prizes of 200.000 euros.
  • 8 fifth prizes of 50.000 euros.
  • 1.774 prizes of 1.000 euros.

And you know the old expresion "close but no cigar"? Not so here! There are prizes for just being close to some of the winning numbers!

  • 2 20.000 euro prizes to the numbers before and after the first prize.
  • 2 12.500 euro prizes to the numbers before and after the second prize.
  • 2 9.600 euro prizes to the numbers before and after the third prize.
  • 297 1.000 euro prizes to numbers in the same hundred as the first, second or third prize.
  • 198 1.000 euro prizes to numbers in the same hundred as the fourth and fith prizes.
  • 2.547 1.000 euro prizes to all tickets whose final two numbers coincide with those of the first, second or third prizes.
  • 8.499 "refunds" (for those with the last number the same as the "Gordo") of 200 euros.

With all this each number usually has a 15% chance of winning some kind of prize. And to spread the wealth even further, each number is divided in "Décimos" or "tenths" which is the unit most people buy (costs 20€), so if you have one "décimo" of a number and that number wins a prize, then you get one tenth of the prize! So all in all it's a very widely distributed lottery, with prizes going out all over the country, and reporters off chasing to find people who've won one of the big prizes to show them on TV (the news at lunch today dedicated about 20' to the lottery! images of people laughing and crying, showering in champaign, making plans for their winnings). One of the nice things is that every year you hear these stories of people in pretty dire financial straights whose lives just became a lot easier thanks to the lottery windfall (sob stories abound!).

The tradition includes families offering numbers to each other, friends getting together to buy a "décimo" together, small associations/clubs etc selling "participations" of a number (you buy a 2€40 ticket worth 2€ of the 20€ décimo + 40ç to help that club finance itself). Here's one my friends and I got together for 2 years ago (sadly not awarded anything):

That's all for this entry! Best of luck to any lottery players out there! Que la suerte os acompañe! y FELIZ NAVIDAD! :o)

8 Dec 2008

Movie Madness!

Let me say it here and now, out loud: I'm a MOVIE ADDICT!!!
Even more: I'm an OSCAR NUT!!!

There. I said it! :o)

Just in case it wasn't clear based on the fact that 2 out of 3 previous entries were about movies... and with the "awards season" shifting into a higher gear, it's only going to get worse! :p

Stories are in my blood (both on paper and screen). I have a very easy capacity for losing myself in a moment, in a character. I'm really good at suspending my disbelief - as long as it's not too fake! I'll watch almost anything at least once. If it's good and I liked it I'm more than willing to see it again; if it's excellent and I loved it you can be pretty sure I'll be getting the dvd (I'm an avid consumer of bonus material) and watching it again and again and again! If it's just bof I'll probably forget about it and then end up watching again if it shows up on TV. I can be pretty forgiving when judging a film, often taking into account what I think the filmmakers wanted to accomplish and placing it in the appropriate context (after all, you can't compare apples and oranges like a commercial feel-good movie or an Oscar-hopeful thought-provoking film). But I can also be pretty hard on bad or even mediocre films, have little patience for "low-brow" comedy (I just don't get the popularity of an excess of stupidity on the screen), can't stand gore for the sake of a bloodbath and am not too fond of horror films.

Friends have a tendency to come to me to ask about info on what's playing and are often surprised by my spouting out random trivia related to the films or future projects by the directors, actors etc. They often ask me how I know about it all... well here goes! Basically I spend waaaaaaay too much time reading movie-related websites. Here are my favourites for any curious enough to delve into them. They're getting a lot more traffic now that the Awards Season has started:

The Carpetbagger - my favourite! for me the season really starts when this Oscar-related N.Y.Times blog reopens its doors at the beginning of December. The Bagger has a unique sense of humor, pretty good movie taste and presents an outsider's view of the whole awards circus. Add in his crazy videos (he's moved out of Times Square and into his basement this year, nuts!)

In Contention - with several bloggers on-board it's good for reviews and movie insights, but particularly interesting for its "Tech Support" section which dissects various aspects of films we tend to take for granted and helps you gain a greater appreciation for all the hard work that goes into our favourite movies.

The Film Experience - a one-man show (I don't know how he keeps up that volume of posting!) with some interesting reviews, lists, quirky ideas, discussions, blog-a-thons... you name it, Nathaniel's probably done it!

Movie City News - a news aggregator, best place for links to news from a wide variety of sources as well as some interesting pieces (state of the industry, awards discussions, reviews) by their own columnists.

SyFy Portal - excellent for news and reviews for Science Fiction fans (me!!!)

dig in! and be prepared for more movie-madness in the future! ;o)

6 Dec 2008

Movie Magic: Meet Me In Saint Louis

Over on The Film Experience (a website where I spend a little bit too much time, more on that another day) this Saturday Dec. 6th is Musical Of The Month day. :p And so I'm dipping my toe into the world of communal blogging (hmmm... dunno if that's the proper term) to talk about one of my all-time favourite films, Vicente Minelli's musical masterpiece Meet Me In Saint Louis starring the superbe Judy Garland! :o)

The fact that Judy Garland is in it is pretty much enough to explain a more than simple liking of this film. Her presence tends to light up the screen, her voice can give you shivers down your back. That was all it took for me to buy a dvd of a movie I'd never heard of (something I almost never do) and sit down asap to watch. That was several years ago; can't even remember when. The movie got into me in such a way that I can't believe I didn't know about it before! I can only say thanks for the studios finally releasing their hidden gems onto dvd for those of us who weren't around back in the day to discover them now!

For those who don't know anything about this film (I recommend Nathaniel's post at The Film Experience, or the very detailed -if bland- Wikipedia entry), it's about a family living in Saint Louis, Missouri at the turn of the century (1903), shortly before the Word's Fair was held there. It's a very simple and sweet tale. Partly autobiographical, it's a portrait of 4 sisters (the poor brother doesn't get much screen time) and basically lets us catch glimpses of their lives centered around their family and friends (once per season: a summer party, Halloween, Christmas and spring). Domestic bliss is marred when the father (a lawyer) announces his firm is shipping them off to New York just after Christmas and they all realise they will have to leave behind the only world they've ever known. To make matters worse they'll miss the World Fair! But as this plays out partly like a fairy tale you know ends well.

Main source of appeal (for me) of this film: Judy Garland.
She fits into Esther's skin like it was a glove, bringing to the surface the right combination of spunk and tenderness. In a documentary accompanying the dvd, Liza Minelli comments on how her father was very taken with Judy and how you can tell by the way he lovingly frames her in doorways, window casings etc. The soft colours and lighting also elevate her beauty, and the costumes are simply gorgeous!
A role bridging her career playing "young" and "innocent" to more adult roles soon after.

Another bundle of joy: child star Margaret O'Brien.
She's got so much energy you can sometimes feel the screen sizzling! Her character Tootie (a.k.a. the book's author) is a mischievous little devil brought to life in a very endearing way. Her chemistry with Judy (as well as the other actors) is obvious in every scene they share, particularly in some of the musical sequences.

The Musical Numbers. :o)
I'm a big fan of Musicals. Always have been. But even I
sometimes get tired of musicals when they just break into song and dance for no apparent reason. Or when numbers exist solely to showcase the star's talent (ego trips, i.e. Gene Kelley's dream sequence in most of his movies). I think this is one of first musicals I saw where the songs just fit seamlessly into the general film. Where the songs tell a part of the story. Songs I want to sing all day long.

And any film that includes one of my favourite Judy Garland numbers HAS to be wonderful! ;o)

Or one of my favourite Christmas Carols:

Ok, I think I've rambled on long enough. Hope it peaked your interest though! As for me... I think I might go put a dvd in the machine, it's been a while since I've seen it!