Friday, October 12, 2012

Hello To All the Children of the World

International Fair
Hello, bonjour, buenos dias!
Hello, Bonjour, Buenos Dias
G'Day, Gutentag, Konichiwa
Ciao, Shalom, Dobre Dyen, 
Hello to all the children of the world!

Last Friday, I chaired an event at my sons' school: the International Fair. It was a wonderful celebration of culture and community.

Several months ago, the school PTA president asked for volunteers to help plan the event this fall. I signed up, thinking I'd basically be organizing a giant potluck. (When you say International Fair, I say food: Fair! Food! Fair! Food!)

We moved to California last summer, so we are still relatively new to the neighborhood. At our former elementary school in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, we loved the Soul Food Dinner/Multicultural Night that was held every other year. Food was a huge part of the evening, as it was essentially a massive potluck dinner in the cafeteria, flanked by parent-hosted country booths. The soul food selections were always fantastic: fried chicken, mac-n-cheese casseroles, banana pudding, sweet potato pies. The other cultural dishes were wonderful too. Latkes always disappeared fast, along with potstickers.

So at our new school this year, I agreed to chair the International Fair. And then I learned that it was more than a potluck. I worked closely with two other moms to plan the event. Juggling home and work responsibilities, we met weekly for the past month and a half to develop and execute a plan that included recruiting volunteers, lining up food and merchandise vendors, scheduling entertainment and coordinating publicity. Before this event, I had not met these two women, but by Friday evening, we had bonded. For weeks, we dealt with lots of logistical details together. Unexpected problems cropped up. Volunteers dropped out, food trucks broke down, performers needed special accommodations. We worked with some wonderful people along the way: committed parent volunteers and a supportive school staff, including our principal, Amanda Boyce.

It had been years since the school last hosted an International Fair and in the past, the event had been held as a schoolday event only for students. This year, we hosted the event on a Friday evening and opened it to families and the larger community. With these changes, we didn't know if people would respond favorably. An hour and a half before the event opened, I stood alone on the school blacktop starting to worry. What if the food trucks don't come? What if the DJ doesn't come? What if no one comes?

Then, the first food vendor arrived: the charming El Sur food truck. They showed up early to begin baking their incredible Argentinian empanadas. When they rolled up, I was so excited I shrieked and ran up to them like they were the Ice Cream Man. I directed them and the other food trucks to park in a way that anchored a food court area. Then, the custodian arrived and set up tables and chairs, helping everyone all evening. Merchandise vendors came and set up clothing, jewelry and henna stands. Parent and teacher volunteers trickled in and set up various country displays.

Everything was coming together and I happily ticked off items on my checklists. I was starting to breathe normally again. When the DJ arrived and successfully hooked up his equipment, I felt even more relieved. And then when the martial arts team showed up, looking not unlike the Cobra Kai team from The Karate Kid, I knew everything was going to be OK. (Seriously, I expected their leader, at any moment, to say, ominously, "Sweep the leg.")

Families strolled in, many dressed in clothing from their native countries: China, India, Iran, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Phillipines, Romania and more. They practiced slapshots at the Canada booth, folded origami hats at the Japan booth, tried tinikling at the Phillipines booth. They sampled street food from the food trucks and the Indian chaat vendor.

Everyone swarmed the dance and music performances. One of my fellow event coordinators, a dance teacher among other roles, choreographed and led a delightful kindergarten performance that attracted a large mob of overbearing kinder parents (me being one of them). In all the time I worked to plan this evening, I had forgotten that my own younger son would be performing. When he and all the other kinders sang "Hello to all the children of the world", everything about the evening came together. All the logistical details swarming in my head fell away and I just listened to these adorable youngsters singing to celebrate our international community.

It was a memorable night.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Food Truck Facts

This past weekend, I chaired the International Fair at my sons' school and enlisted some area food trucks to participate:

El Sur's menu.
Photo credit: I Left My Cart in San Francisco

1) El Sur
The charming, elegant El Sur food truck showed up 90 minutes before the start of the event to begin baking their incredible Argentinian empanadas. Based on their recommendation, I sampled the Traditional (hand-cut beef, onions, pimenton, hard boiled egg, olives, oregano) and Parisien (chopped prosciutto and country ham, scallions, chives, five cheeses) varieties. They were amazing - savory, melty and complex. El Sur also offered dulce de leche-filled churros, but I didn't sample that. Here's a review of El Sur from I Left My Cart in San Francisco.

Photo credit: Silicon Valley Food Trucks
2) MoBowl
I love these guys! They've been at our school events before and they are always a hit. For our family, I ordered the Five-Spice Pulled Pork rice bowl and the Umami Tofu brown rice bowl to share. The person behind me ordered Cheesecake Egg Rolls. Here's a review of MoBowl from
Silicon Valley Food Trucks.

Dosa Republic.
Photo credit: Dosa Republic
3) Dosa Republic
These guys are awesome. Like MoBowl, these guys have been to our school events before. I was too full to order any food from them but next time, I think I'd like to try their Old Delhi Lamb dosa made with Bombay potatoes, egg and halal lamb. Here's a review of Dosa Republic from K
KQED's Bay Area Bites.

In planning the event, I learned a few things about food truck operators:

1) They are business-savvy. 
Successful food truck operators have carved out a distinctive niche for their offerings (e.g. cheesecake egg rolls) and need to make strategic decisions about when and where to show up. Before committing to your event and location, they need to know how many people are expected, what food preferences there may be and what other food options will be available.

2) They are social media-savvy. 
The most popular trucks have well-designed websites with full menu info, photos and contact information. They are active on Facebook and Twitter. 

3) They are community-minded. 
The food truck operators I contacted were happy to help our school when I told them we required at least a 10% donation of their sales to our school PTA. One vendor even offered 20%.

4) They have technical difficulties sometimes.
One of the vendors we scheduled almost didn't make it to our event; it had to be towed from San Francisco two days earlier. Another truck had problems with its cooling unit and wasn't able to clear health code inspection in time for our event. 

5) They are flexible and creative.
I supposed it's the nature of the business, but the food truck operators I spoke to were very accommodating. Knowing that the event I was planning was taking place at an elementary school, they each offered kid-friendly menu options.

No International Fair is complete without great food, so I'm so glad that El Sur, MoBowl and Dosa participated in our event. I'm already looking forward to the next one!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Food truck obsession: it all started with the Ice Cream Man

The original food truck. 
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
I am a little obsessed with food trucks these days. 

For me, it all started 30-something years ago with the original version: the ice cream truck. The first time I experienced the ice cream truck was the summer before second grade, after my family moved from Canada to the United States. One hot, humid afternoon, a truck came ambling down our street. Music blared - I think it was "Turkey in the Straw". My buddy Audrey grabbed my arm. "It's the ice cream man! Come on, let's go!" She saw the confused look on my face and directed me on what to do: go home, collect all the loose change in the house, beg parents for money if needed and then rush back to the tree lawn to wait for the truck to come by.

I did as instructed and met Audrey on the street curb. When the truck stopped in front of us, I was overwhelmed. Photos of various frozen treats plastered the entire side of the truck. It took all summer for me to sample the various options and determine my favorites: the orange sherbet Push Up, the Strawberry Shortcake bar, the Fudgsicle, the orange Creamsicle and the peanut-crusted Drumstick. (OK, I guess that isn't much of a short list.)

Anyhow, my cheap Asian immigrant parents were not fans of the Ice Cream Truck and tried to dissuade me from developing this new American summer addiction. They bought cheap tubs of Neapolitan ice cream (Three flavors for the price of one! On sale!) from the supermarket and hoped that would cure me. What they didn't understand was that it was the whole Ice Cream Truck Experience that was appealing, not the ice cream itself. The variety. The immediacy. My addiction got worse. Bolting up every time I heard the truck music, I had become one of Pavlov's dogs. My mom refused to give me any money to support my habit. Audrey and I started setting up lemonade stands. We sold greeting cards. We sold pens. We sold our toys. 

Once, on a family trip to Taiwan, I heard a truck blaring music from loudspeakers. "ICE CREAM!" I squealed and leapt toward the door of my grandparents' house. My parents shook their heads. "It's the garbage man," my dad said.

Flash forward. Two years ago, my fabulous foodie friend Gina P. told me about a food truck making a stop near our workplace in Cleveland: Dim and Den Sum. She invited me to meet her there for lunch. Dim sum + food truck + lunch with a friend = no brainer. The Asian fusion selections were yummy and I went back to work happy. 

Then last year, we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, home to a thriving Food Truck movement. At my son's elementary school back-to-school picnic, I was surprised and thrilled to see several food trucks parked on the school grounds. Options included Indian dosa, Chinese rice bowls, Mexican burritos and Kara's Cupcakes. A food truck frenzy! Heaven.

This past weekend, I organized an International Fair event at my sons' school and went with the food truck model. Researching and contacting food trucks in the area, I gained considerable knowledge of area food trucks. For the past six weeks leading up to the event, I often had dreams of them. In one dream, I opened up a Taiwanese food truck called BoPoMoFo (a phonetic Chinese pronunciation alphabet) that offered Taiwanese street food (specializing in bubble teas and steamed sticky rice in banana leaves).

Now I'm obsessed with food trucks more than ever.

Monday, October 1, 2012

To Dad on the day of his retirement

I just got off the phone with my dad this morning. It was the last time I'll dial his work number, as today is his last day of work at Case Western Reserve University. He has had a long career there - 35 years working as a cancer researcher.

Over the years, we've had hundreds of phone calls while he was at work at CWRU. In junior high and high school, Dad would call every weekday afternoon to make sure we got home OK. "Remember to make rice," he would gently remind me and my sister.

For the past several years, Dad has talked about retiring and he would always say it was going to happen in a few months. And then, he'd say it would happen after a research grant ran out. And then after another research grant ran out. And then he'd casually mention that he was applying for new research grants. Finally, we stopped asking about his supposed retirement because we never thought it would actually happen. 

When my dad told me today would be his last day, I was surprised. I asked him if he was happy about retiring and starting a new chapter in his life. He was quiet. I thought he might feel liberated and excited to plan new adventures, but instead, he seemed rather sad. I should have understood why.

Looking back, I think about everything my father's career provided for our family. His job led us to move from Canada to the United States, allowing us a clear path to permanent residence and, eventually, American citizenship. I remember when we first moved to Cleveland, Ohio on a cloudy gray day. My dad's supervisor took us out for pizza at Geraci's, where I tasted anchovies for the first time. We settled into a rented duplex in Cleveland Heights on a leafy street with lots of kids my age. 

Dad and a dinosaur at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Dad's job led us to lots of time spent at University Circle: art lessons and exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art, trips to see dinosaur bones at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, music recitals at The Music Settlement and the Cleveland Institute of Music. My sister and I loved visiting Dad's lab and examining the setup and equipment, especially the Geiger counter, centrifuge and microscope. Sometimes, he would bring home toys for us: test tubes, pipettes, Petri dishes and colored masking tape. 

The most valuable benefit of Dad's job, undoubtedly, was the remarkable undergraduate education I received at CWRU. Admittedly, as a high school senior, I felt a little disappointed knowing I would be staying so close to home for college. I took it for granted how lucky I was to have a free college education. Dad didn't. 

One day during my sophomore year, he called me at my dorm room. Even though we were both on campus, we rarely made plans to get together. He summoned me to meet for lunch in the hospital atrium, where we had a pointed discussion about my subpar grades that semester. All my life, my mom has been the Tiger parent in the family. Dad has been pretty selective about his Tiger parent moments. That was one of them.

It took a while, but eventually, I got serious about my studies as an English major. I found wonderful faculty mentors who encouraged me to become a writer. I took a class, The Immigrant Experience, that deeply resonated with me. I felt blessed to be part of such a culturally rich CWRU community.

On the day I graduated from CWRU, Dad was flying back from a work conference. We were hoping he would make it back in time for him to get on stage to award me my diploma, but it didn't happen. He did get there in time to change into his cap and gown, though, and it was really great to see him afterward, both of us wearing our graduation robes.

Ten years after I graduated, I started working on campus at CWRU. Following my dad's footsteps, I brought my kids to work sometimes and took them to various campus activities. Some of my favorite campus memories are of three generations of our family participating in university traditions. When my oldest son was four, my mom, dad and I took him to Halloween at the Farm, an annual campus event with a giant bonfire, live music, fall foods and pumpkin carving. 

Five years ago, I called my dad and summoned him to meet in the hospital atrium. We had a quick, excited exchange before I had to dash off for my scheduled c-section. Dad went off to work in his lab. At lunch time, he came to my hospital room to meet his second grandchild. And then he went back to work. After work, he and my mom returned again, this time with flowers (and homemade Chinese food).

CWRU is a special place for our family. It's where I earned my undergraduate degree, my husband earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees, and his father earned his graduate degree. It's where I worked for eight years and made lots of great friends. It's home for us. For the first time in 35 years, we will not have a single family member studying or working on campus any more. Dad was the first and the last. 

Well done, Dad! We are so proud of you!