A single Thanksgiving dinner is all most of us can handle, but London filmmaker Gurinder Chadha will celebrate seven this year.
The first four appear in her film “What’s Cooking?,” which opens Friday. Everything anyone loves or hates about Thanksgiving happens in the film, which looks at four Los Angeles families from vastly different backgrounds as they work on their respective big birds.
There’s the usual flap about whether the turkey is done (that family didn’t use a pop-up). Two turkeys meet with disaster (you’ll have to see the film to find out what happens). Another sits out all night to thaw (please don’t do that).
Turkey-stuffing, potato-mashing and pie-making are only part of the action. Bickering, betrayal, secrets and surprises are on the menu too, as personalities clash (who hasn’t experienced that at big family gatherings?) and high drama steals the stage from the food.
The four families are Jewish, African American, Latino and Vietnamese. Therefore, the turkeys wind up with such nontraditional accompaniments as tamales and empanadas, macaroni and cheese, spring rolls, rice noodles, flan, arroz con leche and Moroccan fruit compote.
The African American family heads upscale with an oyster-shiitake stuffing. The Latino mother heats tortillas on a comal to go with her turkey. The Jewish family crowds the table with a strange assortment of dishes including polenta, Chinese chicken salad, noodle kugel and raspberry Jell-O.
And the Vietnamese family struggles to reconcile unfamiliar foods with tradition. “Why do you want to make the turkey taste like everything else we eat?” complains a daughter as her mother daubs the bird with hot peppers.
“Thanksgiving is so unique to America because it centers around food,” says Chadha, who travels often to Los Angeles and will spend the holiday here. “To me it became a wonderful metaphor to look at the cultural identity of Americans.”
Chadha’s personal Thanksgiving will be about as diverse as those in the film. And she’ll have three of them.
Born in Kenya of Punjabi ancestry and raised in London, she is married to Gardena-born Paul Mayeda Berges, who is Japanese and French. (Chadha conceived and directed “What’s Cooking?"and wrote it in collaboration with her husband.)
“We always have three Thanksgivings,” she says. “We have the first at lunch with Paul’s Japanese side of the family.” That event takes place at the home of his grandparents, Toshio and Kay Mayeda of Gardena.
“They have the turkey dinner with yams, ham, stuffing and rolls.” But there is also sushi and rice. “And Auntie Sue [Sue Mayeda] brings something Korean to the table. Last year, I think it was ribs.”
“In the evening, we have a more traditional Thanksgiving with Paul’s dad [Ronald Berges of Toluca Lake] and his wife. That’s where we have asparagus with Parma ham and tiger prawns. All the trimmings are very top-notch. Everyone holds hands around the table and says grace. Then we go around the table and say what everyone is thankful for.”
The third Thanksgiving is a weekend potluck put together by Berges’ mother, Janis Mayeda Berges of Torrance, and her friends. This diverse group includes Jewish, African American, Japanese and other cultures. “It’s a complete mix of women,” Chadha says. “It’s fabulous, fractious. Everything centers around someone saying the turkey is not done. One person says it’s not cooked. Others say it is. It’s always very entertaining.”
Chadha, whose earlier film, “Bhaji on the Beach,” portrays Indian women in England, chose not to include an Indian family in “What’s Cooking.” Instead, she used the film as a vehicle for studying other groups. “I know the Indian community really well,” she says. “For me [this film] was a real voyage of exploration and learning.”
Yet another motive was to show Europeans “what Los Angeles really looks like. This is becoming more and more my town. I feel very affectionate toward it,” Chadha says.
The L.A. landscape is very much a part of the story. Scouting neighborhoods in which to photograph, Chadha settled on an area at the intersection of Kelton and Tennessee avenues in West Los Angeles. “The houses were so distinctive,” she says.
The kitchen and backyard of a home near Larchmont Boulevard were used for the Latino family’s Thanksgiving. Brief shots focus on street signs, such as Pico Boulevard and Redondo Boulevard, Canter’s deli, the Laxmi sari shop on Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia (Little India), the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster, Little Tokyo, Westlake Park and a freeway overpass downtown.
The masa used for tamale-making in the Latino segment came from La Adelita Food Co. on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. The source for a wooden tortilla press was El Mercado de Los Angeles on East 1st Street. A box of pastries opened in the Jewish segment typifies what you would find in bakeries along Fairfax Avenue.
The food stylist for the film was Sylvia Marmolejo, a Mexican American resident of the mid-Wilshire area. Marmolejo contributed her own recipes for a squash and corn dish, flan and arroz con leche to the Latino dinner.
The cast had to eat much of the food, so Marmolejo prepared everything fresh and made it not just palatable but delicious.
“I always insisted on having fresh turkey every time we shot,” Chadha says. “I was paranoid. I didn’t want anyone to get ill.” Also, she found that good food seemed to enhance the performances. By the time filming was completed, cast and crew had consumed 32 turkeys.
“What’s Cooking?” was shot in April and May of last year, and post-production concluded just after Thanksgiving. The film made its American debut at this year’s Sundance film festival.
Although impressed by the creative possibilities of a Thanksgiving story, Chadha is not overly fond of the food. “Personally, I find the traditional meal very bland,” she says. “I just can’t understand why they don’t have roast potatoes with the turkey. [In England] it is inconceivable that you can roast meat and not have roast potatoes with it.”
Her husband differs. “I never can get enough of the food. I love it,” says Mayeda Berges.
In London, Chadha has attended expatriate Thanksgiving dinners. “It’s the one day Americans feel very homesick,” she says.
When her parents would cook turkey at home in England, they would make two--one mildly seasoned for the children, the other spicy with Indian flavors. As a child, Chadha ate the plain turkey. “Now I’m the extreme opposite,” she says.
If she were cooking this Thanksgiving, she would prepare turkey tandoori style, marinated overnight with yogurt, garlic and spices. She would add chopped hot green peppers to the stuffing and jazz up the gravy with hot red pepper. If mashed potatoes were a must, she would season them with garlic as well as butter and top them with crisp fried slivers of onion, garlic and green hot pepper.
For a vegetable dish, she would toss parboiled chunks of yam and corn on the cob with oil and ground red peppers, grill them and finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.
There would be an Indian mint chutney but no cranberries. “It’s not a common food in England,” she explains.
Dessert would be simple. “After all that, you need ice cream to cool you down.”