Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mixed Plate: Viva La Thanksgiving

And here we are yet again... another Thanksgiving ready to unfurl its tryptophan wings and cast us into a turkey-stuffing-pie food coma vortex. And for those readying to battle the Black Friday shopping crowds, I salute you with a less than enthusiastic wave of a half-eaten turkey leg. Instead of showing a typical Thanksgiving pastoral, I opted to share photos from a recent trip to The Ninth Island (aka, Las Vegas), when my family and I gathered for my cousin Deven's birthday. It wasn't Thanksgiving and there wasn't a roasted turkey to be seen, but it got me thinking about what makes any holiday worthwhile. It's the time we set aside to spend with family, the rare moments everyone's in the same place at the same time, and the chance to sit back and gaze at the family gene pool party. Dive in, y'all, it's the holidays.

See, Las Vegas isn't all seedy hookers and pimps - they keep the nice stuff under glass - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Does our family always get together like this for a birthday? No. But when someone says they want their birthday in Vegas, it's as if God spoke and the whole family jumps on a plane to heed this Almighty call. My cousin Deven turned 42, which is a significant year in Japanese culture -- yakudoshi, like a rite of passage, or a year of chaos, depending on what Google tells you -- so it all basically translates to: let's have a big-ass party. I think that's what every culture is based on, be it feast or famine, we relish the opportunity to celebrate something. It's a good thing, as Saint Martha would say. And that's kind of what Thanksgiving is like, because we're not really celebrating the fact that the Pilgrims came from afar to bring a persecuted religion and smallpox to a trustworthy, indigenous people, we just want an excuse to go on a carb-binge with the cornbread stuffing, eat three pieces of pumpkin pie (with whipped cream), and pass out on the couch by three in the afternoon. Ahh... tradition.

As luck would have it (har-har), my Wasabi Family Vegas Extravaganza took place over Halloween week, so that explains the spooktacular past-due holiday photos. Unlike typical family jaunts to Las Vegas, we made sure to plan some quality family time, like seeing a show and then a nice family dinner on Deven's birthday. There was also a trip to the Hoover Dam, but I missed that, as I was already en route back to rainy Washington, but from what I heard, Hoover Dam was dam good. I will say this -- when you live in the Pacific Northwest and it's already in the middle of nonstop rain and zero-dark-thirty by four in the afternoon, taking a short trip to the sunnier skies of Nevada is like a shot of adrenaline. The temperature is no longer three times the surface of the sun, it remained in the pleasant upper seventies to low eighties, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. My lackluster Vitamin D levels jump at the thought of it.

From rain to shine - a vacation from the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Halloween week in Las Vegas is about what you'd guess -- people dressed in costume, running around Downtown and The Strip, with you playing that mental game in your head: Halloween costume or actual stripper/pimp? October is also the pesky month where a lot of performers go on vacation and the shows take breaks, since it's typically a low-season time, but my cousin found a show he wanted to see -- Criss Angel's Believe at the Luxor -- and seeing a rock n' roll illusion show was actually pretty fitting for Halloween night. I'm always amazed at Las Vegas performers with regular shows, many doing two performances a night, weekdays through weekends. Most people's offices are a little cubicle, but a performer's office is a stage full of pyrotechnics, scary-looking props and a live crowd, which I think can be the scariest thing of all. Regardless of what performer you see in Las Vegas, you can never deny them the art of showmanship and the ability to keep a crowd's attention, which I think is magic all its own.

Vegas Halloween, and the cage where the gambling cheats go - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I was simply told, "Bring a wig," from my other cousin and aunt helping to plan this Halloween Night outing. As good a suggestion as any, really. So a few of us wigged-out, wore funny glasses and we spent a night on The Strip, catching a magic show and seeing all sorts of crazy stuff in and out of the casinos on All Hallow's Eve. I'd have brought my cat's ears headband, but Indy was still using it.

Just like any other night in Las Vegas - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Despite all the family time, I did steal away for a few hours to wander the Strip one afternoon. I mostly wanted to visit the Bellagio and see their seasonal garden display. I'm not a gambler, so seeing pretty garden stuff is my granny-old lady highlight. As always, they aim to impress and the gorgeous autumn harvest-themed display in the atrium area is a must-see, whether you're planning on gambling your kid's college fund away or not.

Talking trees, giant pumpkins and oh yes... WINE! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I managed to snap a few photos of the delightful pastries in one of the Bellagio's specialty bakeries, Jean Phillipe. This bakery is hard to miss -- it's in the retail area and you'll be drawn to the ceiling-high fountain of melted chocolate cascading down a sculpture of blown glass. You're amazed, then you kind of shake your head, thinking: only in Las Vegas. I had to take a moment and admire the beautiful Halloween themed desserts. I know we're not thinking of ghosts and goblins anymore, but you can't help but adore these sweets. I couldn't bear to eat something so cute, so I picked up some buttery, flaky croissant -- chocolate and almond -- and some of their pretty chocolate-dipped biscotti. Maybe not as precious as a pastry ghost, but just as delicious.

Spooky sweets at Jean Phillipe Bakery in the Bellagio - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The Bellagio is pretty close to Caesar's Palace, so I ran in there just to visit their Vosges Chocolate boutique. Their chocolates are exquisite, as is their packaging. Purple boxes and ribbons -- Prince would feel very at-home. I can usually find their bacon-chocolate bar at Whole Foods, but their real gems are of course their truffles, which you either have to order by mail or visit one of their shops. A stupid amount of money later, I had a shopping bag full of holiday gifts, more sweets for my cousin's birthday celebration, and even something sweet to bring home to the Mister. It felt like a total Vegas Moment, shopping for luxury chocolates, surrounded by fake Greek statues and wondering just how the hell they built that spiraling escalator in The Forum Shops.

Hail Caesar and your bitchin' shopping mall - Photos by Wasabi Prime
As a travel note -- if you find yourself buying stuff and wondering if everything will fit into your suitcase, there is a UPS Store right in the Flamingo Hotel, which is right across from Caesar's Palace. Why more hotels don't have UPS Stores is beyond me, but I'm glad for that convenience. It might be an expensive way to get things home, but the way airlines charge for bags, you're spending over twenty five bucks either way, so may as well not have to carry it yourself.

Family dinner time, Election Day-style! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
On the night of my cousin Deven's birthday, his sister Dawn and my Aunt Sharon made sure everyone was decked out in election-themed gear they made ahead of time. Buttons, pamphlets, the whole deal. Not that my cousin is running for office, but at the time, election felt like a fitting theme, plus I have an uncle who's a state senator and his own campaign brochures made for good inspiration material. The whole family gathered at the Second Street Grill in the Fremont Hotel -- because Downtown Vegas is how Hawaii folks roll -- and we wore our fake-candidate buttons proudly for Deven's birthday dinner. Like some crazy Hunger Games thing, we made a "tribute" to Deven and his love of chocolate, piling gifts of sweets from all over the world on the center of the table. I know it wasn't Thanksgiving, but it felt like a long-overdue holiday gathering made even more special since people had to travel a ways to meet up. My cousin Dawn wins the Mileage Award, having traveled all the way from Sweden to attend her brother's birthday. All this and us cousins didn't have to sit at the kiddie table -- who says Vegas isn't a town for winners?

Food, family and funny photos while on The Ninth Island - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Much like Thanksgiving itself, the trip was full of big meals, but it was less about the food and more about the time it gave us to spend together. It was a reminder that no matter what the occasion, however funky the location, time with family is a rare gift. Costume wigs optional. I don't live close to my family, the closest immediate relative is a state away and my parents are nearly an ocean away, so this trip was like Thanksgiving and Christmas, all rolled up into one. I honestly can't think of the last time so many of us got together like this and I can't think of when we'll be able to do this again. So as you gather to feast upon the turkey, raise your head from your plate for a moment to see who's sitting with you. Be thankful for the occasion that brings you and your crazy clan of family members together for a night. Viva La Thanksgiving, y'all.

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