When it comes to gift giving, it is hard to please my parents. “Don’t waste your money on us!” my mom constantly says. For my father’s 80th birthday this year, my siblings and I wanted to do something special, like go out to a fancy meal or throw a party with family members and friends. My mom’s reaction was this: “I’ll make all the food. You come home.”
And so we did. My father’s actual birthday is December 18 but we celebrate it on Christmas Eve when most of us are apt to be available. This year, with exception to my brother, we gathered at my folks place on December 24.
Rory and I arrived earlier in the day because my mom assigned me to bring the meal together. She had spent a month(!) preparing the various components and it was my job to assemble, reheat, and prepare last minute dishes while my folks attended mass. Mom had also decided to prepare her dishes from my cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. She said that the detailed recipes were great as she’d forgotten to jot certain things down in her hand written recipe cards. I was stoked and flattered because Mom can be a harsh critic!
My mother’s menu consisted of many family favorites. We had baked shrimp toast (p. 27) and lemongrass pork riblets (p. 145) as appetizers with champagne. Then the sit-down meal included creamy corn and shiitake mushroom soup (p. 74) and roasted game hens stuffed with sticky rice and chestnut dressing (p. 248). I made the vegetable side dishes of roasted cauliflower, Romanesco broccoflower in browned butter, roasted sweet potatoes with orange zest, and salad. (Note that for the shrimp toasts, we used baguette instead of the thinly sliced white bread, which wasn't available.)
What always impresses me is how my mom has everything prepped in advance. Because things get chaotic with 16 people in the house, she partially roasted the stuffed game hens and had me finish roasting them right before serving. That’s one of the great takeaways from the event.
Her organization and brazen approach to freezing practically everything is really great. All I do is come in and marshal my siblings, nieces and nephews into cooking duties! Weeks in advance, Mom and I discuss the menu. She has me fill in here and there with sides.
It’s a team effort as I've been helping my mom out in the kitchen for years. I'm like her sous chef and sometimes chef de cuisine. However, this year, after I arrived, my mother said, “Do what you want from here. I am passing the knife to you!” Then she went to do her hair and go to church.
My dad is the décor king, and for his birthday, he made the big lit-up “80” and hung it behind the dining table. He and I used to decorate the house together when I was a kid. He loves to tinker.
He also made a leaf for the “children’s” table and set the adult and children’s table. Bo Gia (“Old Daddy” in Vietnamese) proudly said that he came up with the nifty linen napkin fold that made each one look like a dove. “It’s good for the holiday season. The dove is a symbol of peace,” he remarked.
A Few Gifts
You have to have gifts for a birthday. My sisters Linh bought the cake and Yenchi brought a case of wine. Rory and I provided the champagne.
For the non-perishable presents, we tried to gift Bo Gia a few humble things that he couldn’t deem wasteful. My nieces, Sonia, Paulina, and Cynthia did a really nifty thing and cut out photos of themselves and their siblings for a collage that spelled out “We heart Grandpa.” I collected old and new photographs and put them in an electronic picture frame.
Then there was my thirteen-year-old nephew Peter. He and his siblings outgrew their Legos so he auctioned them off on eBay and used the proceeds to buy a wine opener and statuette for my dad. When it came time to open gifts, Peter grabbed his present and stepped up to the plate first. He grinned ear-to-ear as Grandpa opened the box.
When we were kids, we all had to work very hard because our family financially struggled a lot. Now that we’re adults and better off, my parents turn around and spoil us. They make the food, decorate the house, and even do the dishes.
My parents revel in having their family in the house, partly because we’re the reason why they endured their hardships. My father has led an amazing life, from being born in Thanh Hoa in northern Vietnam, relocating multiple times, and starting over in the United States.
“I have lived a long time and am blessed to be here today,” Bo Gia said, thanking us for making his 80th a special occasion. We were all grateful to be there too.
If you've celebrated a landmark birthday for a loved one, how did you fete them?
P.S. With exception to the photo at the the top of this post, the rest came from my dad's camera. He said to me, "This is for your blog!"