May is a busy and joyful month with lovely weather and flowers everywhere. In America and Canada, Mother’s Day will be celebrated on Sunday, May 14, and in Mexico on Wednesday, May 10. This year the historic Coronation of King Charles III will take place in Westminster Abbey on Saturday, May 6. These happy events provide us with opportunities for festive brunches, lunches, afternoon tea parties and family reunions.
My co-author and niece, Kathleen and I recently participated in a spontaneously organized family reunion inspired by a somber event, the death of my husband’s last aunt whose name I have shared for the past sixty years—Rose Higashi. You can read about Auntie Rose in my June, 2022 blog, as we visited her last year on our way to London when she was one-hundred years old.
When a person who is more than one-hundred years old dies, the memorial service is likely to be a celebration of that person’s long and meaningful life rather than a cause for weeping and grief. This was the case with Auntie Rose, a joyful extrovert who lived a dignified and enthusiastic life of devotion to her family and her community. She lived most of her adult life in Gardena, an old Japanese American community surrounded by Los Angeles. To attend her funeral, Wayne and I would need to fly from Honolulu to Los Angeles. However, it occurred to us that we could fly to San Jose instead, visit our relatives there, then take a good old fashioned road trip to Southern California for the memorial service.
Both sides of the family pitched in to make these happy events possible. Wayne’s sister Joyce offered to host this fifteen-person gathering in the patio of her lovely home in San Jose, and Kathleen rounded up my late sister Margaret’s family, who live in Watsonville, less than fifty miles to the south on the gorgeous California coast. It was wonderful to see my brother-in-law Rudy again along with my nieces and nephews! Kathleen also brought the desserts, including a stunning fresh Raspberry Flan Bundt Cake with berries from the family farm of Tiffany, her brother Peter’s wife. You can read all about this beautiful spring pastry in Kathleen’s blog this month, as she has shared the recipe along with a gorgeous photograph. My brother and his family also joined us along with our son David, all of whom live nearby. What a joy!
After the rainiest winter in California history with snow covering even the foothills of normally temperate Santa Clara County, the spring weather was glorious, and Joyce’s garden was filled with new leaves and flowers, adding to our joy in seeing one another again. Since our time in San Jose was limited, we decided not to prepare the food ourselves, other than the desserts. (I baked a batch of Mexican Wedding Cookies the day before our flight and packed them in my suitcase.) San Jose is famous for authentic and outstanding Mexican food, and we chose a local restaurant, Adelita’s Taqueria, that specializes in family meals and is located near Joyce’s home.
Adelita came through for us with a fresh, delicious take-out buffet with plenty of well-seasoned meat and vegetable items to please every person in the family. Here’s the menu:
Corn Chips with Guacamole and Salsa Fresca
Spicy Pickled Carrots and Jalapenos
Make Your Own Tacos Al Pastor with Grated Cheese and Special Sour Cream
Mexican Rice and Black Beans
Chicken Enchiladas with Red Sauce
Fresh Mushroom Enchiladas with Green Sauce
Kathleen’s Raspberry Flan Bundt Cake
Kathleen’s Improvised Chocolate Trifle
Rose’s Mexican Wedding Cookies
Mexican Beer: Modelo Dark and Light, Tecate
Mexican Sodas: Pineapple, Lemon, Coca-Cola Made in Mexico
Kathleen’s Improvised Chocolate Trifle was fabulous, even though she claimed that she just threw it together with ingredients from the family kitchen in Watsonville. She was kind enough to share her creative process with me, and I am happy to share it with you at the end of this blog.
The next morning our road trip began. We rented a large six-person van to transport us comfortably through glowing green and golden California. Our group included Wayne and I and our son David, Joyce and Wayne’s brother Steven and his wife Patrice, who also live in San Jose.
The lakes, reservoirs and riverbeds throughout the state were filled with an abundance of water, and all the winter rain created a flourishing crop of California poppies, the State Flower. We saw poppies everywhere along Highway 101.
A charming respite along our journey was lunch at the Downtown City Park in Paso Robles, the Central Valley’s new wine and restaurant destination, rivaling the more famous Napa Valley to the north. But we weren’t looking for a restaurant. We found a picnic table in the bandstand gazebo and devoured the leftovers from the previous day’s Mexican buffet. The guacamole was still fresh and delicious, and the mushroom and green chili enchiladas were still divine. We even enjoyed the raspberry cake, the last of the Mexican wedding cookies and the chocolate trifle, kept chilled in Joyce’s cooler.
Our road trip concluded in the charming town of Ojai, near Santa Barbara, where Wayne’s other sister, Kathy Manion and her family have lived for decades. Kathy and her husband Keith graduated from UC Santa Barbara and settled in this lovely place, graced with orange groves, olive trees and even more golden poppies.
The Manions, along with their daughter Shana and her family, greeted us with a classic California post-Easter dinner of local cheeses and fruit, ham, deviled eggs and a luscious sweet potato and black bean enchilada casserole. Dessert was home-made apple pie and a hearty vegan apple cake made with eight local apples by Shana’s in-laws, Michael and Mary Lou Sharp, whom we were delighted to meet for the first time. It was magical to relax with family in the back yard under a one-hundred-year-old California live oak, watching the squirrels and celebrating the end of California’s long drought. Kathy and Keith hosted me and Wayne for the night, and our four remaining travel companions headed out for the two-hour drive to their Air B and B in Gardena in anticipation of tomorrow’s memorial service.
We said goodbye to dear Auntie Rose in a dignified memorial service organized by her son Don, who was also her care giver. Don wrote her Personal History and a heartfelt elegiac Personal Reflection about his mother, Wayne’s Auntie Rose, but did not feel able to read them at the service. He asked me and Joyce to read these tributes to the assembled family members and friends who were present to honor Rose, and we felt privileged to do so.
In the Japanese tradition, everyone present was invited to join the family for a full meal in a restaurant, in this case, Cherrystones in Gardena, a Pacific Rim restaurant where we enjoyed a pan-Asian feast of teriyaki beef and chicken, Chinese chicken salad, Hawaiian macaroni salad, kimchee, stir-fried soba noodles and fresh broccoli Japanese style. At the end of the meal, Don and his brother Doug quietly invited just the cousins over to the family home for an informal visit with chocolate cake and tea. When we arrived at the modest house where Auntie Rose spent the last seventy years of her life, an aura of gratitude and peace permeated the air. This group of siblings and cousins, who had known each other all their lives and played together as children, found their happy place in this tidy home which had not changed in decades. There was instant relaxation and comfort after the formality of the funeral, as we chatted together about memories of happy times in the Higashi family and hopes for the days ahead. Wayne and I were thankful to spend such precious time with both of our families.
If your family is planning a reunion this spring, this website is here to help. In the calendar section of The Tea Book, we offer four different detailed menus in our August Family Reunion Tea—A North American Family Tea, which includes one of my favorite cakes, Triple Espresso Cake, An Eastern Mediterranean Family Tea, featuring one of the world’s best pastries, Baklava, A Kosher Family Tea with Kathleen’s fabulous Cheesecake, and a Scandinavian Family menu loaded with Butter Cookies. And if you enjoyed our California road trip, our California Tea menu in the World of Tea Parties section of the Tea Book is filled with authentic California cuisine, including Queen of California Cake, highlighting two of the golden state’s favorite agricultural products—apricots and almonds. And if you think your family would enjoy the Mexican Wedding Cookies that traveled with me to our family reunion, you will find them in our October Mexican Tea menu celebrating our ancestors. Finally, I hope your family will enjoy Kathleen’s Improvised Chocolate Trifle as much as we did.
Trifle originated in England as a dessert composed of leftovers and items from the pantry such as yesterday’s cake, cookies, nuts, fruits and jam layered with custard or whipped cream. In the spirit of improvisation, we will not use a recipe, but you will need to make some Chocolate Custard to glue your Trifle together. You can find the recipe for Vanilla Custard in my May 2020 Blog, and to make the chocolate version, you can simply add half a cup of Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa to the flour required to thicken the pudding. When the custard is completely cooked and thickened, just add half a cup of semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips along with the butter and stir until the butter and chips have melted into the pudding. Chill the custard covered with plastic wrap until you are ready to assemble your Chocolate Trifle.
Kathleen’s Chocolate Trifle was an innovative combination of a British style trifle and the Italian version, Tiramisu, which includes coffee and sweetened mascarpone or cream cheese. To put your trifle together, you will need to round up some chocolate cake, either baked from a cake mix or bought in a grocery store or bakery. You will also need at least one cup of very strong coffee or espresso, sweetened with powdered sugar, about eight ounces of cream cheese or mascarpone, some Kalua, if you want your trifle to have a little kick, and some chocolate cookies. Pepperidge Farms has some nice crispy chocolate cookies, but you can use Oreos or other chocolate wafers if you can find them.
To assemble your luscious Chocolate Trifle, brew and sweeten the coffee, and also sweeten the cream cheese. Use about half a cup of powdered sugar and beat the cream cheese with a whisk or an electric mixer. Start by cutting the cake into pieces and fitting them into the bottom of a large decorative glass bowl. Then dampen the cake with the coffee and Kalua. Add a layer of chocolate custard and break up several of the cookies and scatter them over the custard. Create a second layer in the same way. Then carefully spread the sweetened cream cheese over the second layer of cake, coffee, custard and cookies. Finish with a third layer in the same order as the first two, allowing some of the cookie pieces to decorate the top. Refrigerate your masterpiece until you are ready to serve it.