Monday, February 23, 2009

Day of Remembrance 2009 for Japanese Americans - 3

The 30th anniversary of the Day of Remembrance for Japanese Americans who were evicted from their homes and sent to American internment camps during World War II was held yesterday afternoon.

Over 200 people gathered to commemorate the fateful day of February 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that allowed for the exclusion, eviction and imprisonment of about 120,000 Japanese American citizens and residents who were living in Hawaii state and the West Coast..see previous blogs

Hiroshi's father, the Rev Yoshiaki Fukuda, was picked up in San Jose on the very day that Pearl Harbor was bombed.

As a founder of the Konko Church of San Francisco and a leader of the Konko Church in America, he happened to be in San Jose that day. He and other leaders of the Japanese community were instantly rounded up and sent to a Department of Justice camp to be held under a strict regime.

Hiroshi, at eight months old, was soon afterwards sent with his mother and five brothers and sisters to an internment camp. Over the years the family were moved around several different camps, but spent the longest time in Crystal City, Texas. At one point, his father was briefly allowed to join them.

Towards the end of the war, two of Hiroshi's older brothers were allowed to leave their camp, but Hiroshi and the rest of the family remained until 1947, two years after the end of the war, because of the political activities of his father. Hiroshi was six-years-old when he left.

Crystal City was the last camp to close, which is where his father was at the end. The camp had a huge contingent of Peruvian Japanese, as well as Japanese from other Central and South American countries, Germans and Italians. His father worked in the camps as a political activist especially on behalf of the Peruvian Japanese on the issue of repatriation.

At the end of the war the Central and South American governments would not allow Japanese people back into their countries. More than 600 Peruvian Japanese went to live in Japan
but some resisted repatriation. Finally in 1947, the US government allowed them to remain in the country, Crystal City was closed and Hiroshi's father was released.

The history of the camp can be found, among many other places online, here:,_Texas
and the personal story of Rev Fukuda, written by Hiroshi's brother, Nobusuke, can be read here:

The family settled back in the city and his father wrote a book published in 1957, 'My Six Years of Internment
: An Issei's Struggle for Justice.

is listed along with many other fascinating-looking books on a Public Broadcasting Service website devoted to the 'Children of the Camps':

What reaction to the internment did his parents show within the family?

'They never expressed hatred against the government but I think they felt they had to be leaders and pick everyone up,' said Hiroshi.

Of his own generation, he said, 'I think we felt the school experience. We felt like onlookers in a way, that we were an enemy being released. It took a while to feel that we were completely an American.'

The Japanese community also had another problem among themselves after the war, and that was a feeling of mistrust and of being let down by the Japanese American Citizens League.

The JACL had cooperated with the government, providing information about its members.

'To this day I don't think they were strong enough,' said Hiroshi.

Frances was a teenager when her family exchanged their home for a horse stall. That was when they were taken to an assembly center at the then Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno, about ten miles south of San Francisco, where internees were housed in the stables.

She can't remember exactly how old she was, about 16 or 17 years, when she left home with her mother, father, brother and sister.

What she does remember is the short period of time they had to get ready as a family. People were taken to the camps at two-week intervals, and although she is not clear whether they had two weeks to prepare, or four or even six, she knows that it was very rapid.

Two weeks final notice at most. 'It was very unpleasant,' she said.

Of Tanforan, which is now a shopping mall with a Japanese garden, she said, 'They were starting to build barracks with bathrooms in the centre. They were called 'latrines' which none of us understood!'

Later she
was moved to Topaz in the Utah desert. 'Most people in San Francisco went to Topaz,' she said.

How did she cope with the abrupt change from home to internment?

'At 16, you take what it is. You shout and holler but you do nothing,' she replied.

I asked her about the conditions of the camp.

'They gave us food. My father was a cook in the mess hall,' she began, commenting
that perhaps she wasn't the best person to ask what people thought of the food!

'We were getting a lot of food that nobody liked, but it was food.' By that she meant the type of American food it was, not her father's cooking.

'Cottage cheese was one of the things nobody liked,' she said, but they also had fish which was more popular.

'They gave us a lot of eggs,' she also recalled. 'I don't remember if they gave us bacon. But they did give us breakfast, lunch and dinner. They did give us a lot of food.'

Yoshihiro, was born in a camp but apart from that time has lived in San Francisco all his life.

'It was very unjust,' he said of the internment, 'but it brought the community together because we were all forced to be together'.

'We shared the same common experience, which ironically meant something positive coming out of something terrible.'

In my next blog I meet writer Kiku Hori Funabiki

pics show: Yoshihiro; Hiroshi; the reception at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California

Day of Remembrance 2009 for Japanese Americans - 2

The 30th anniversary of the Day of Remembrance for Japanese Americans who were evicted from their homes and sent to American internment camps during World War II was held yesterday afternoon.

Over 200 people gathered to commemorate the fateful day of February 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that allowed for the exclusion, eviction and imprisonment of about 120,000 Japanese American citizens and residents who were living in Hawaii state and the West Coast..see previous blog

A fascinating, new documentary on the life of the young Japanese American author who exposed the weakness of the American government's case for exclusion and internment was screened as one the highlights of the remembrance ceremony.

'Out of Infamy,' a twenty-minute documentary, uses archived material that brings to life the story of Michi Nishiura Weglyn, and was shown with filmmakers Nancy Kapitanoff and Sharon Yamato in the audience.

It follows the story of Michi as a Californian farm girl and internee in the Gila river, Arizona, camp, rising to become an artistic costume designer for the Perry Como Show, a researcher, author and political activist. She married Walter Weglyn, a German Jew who narrowly escaped death in Holland, and died in New York in 1999 at the age of 72 years.

Her book, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps, published in 1976, proved the falsehood of the government's claims that imprisonment had been a 'military necessity.'

Instead, with painstaking research through library archives she showed that 'our government had in its possession proof that not one Japanese American, citizen or not, had engaged in espionage, not one had committed any act of sabotage.'

Her book also included information on Japanese Latin Americans, who were used as exchange prisoners between America and Japan during the war, and gave impetus to the redress movement.

At the opening of the Day of Remembrance, another moving film was shown of photos of the internment years with a voiceover by 'Sox' Kitashima.

'Let Us Not Forget' portrayed one harrowing account of a mother of two small children shot by two military police as she sat waiting for her husband to return. The police also wrecked her home.

Later on in the war, said the film, Japanese Americans were asked to bear arms for America and many from the prison camps volunteered.

Mistress of Ceremonies yesterday was Carole Hayashino, Vice President of University Advancement at California State University, Sacramento. She presented the 2009 Clifford Uyeda Peace and Humanitarian Award to Bay Area human rights activists Chizu and Ernest Iiyama.

'We would like to share this award with activists all over the world for peace and justice,' said Chizu.

The couple met as internees in the Topaz Relocation Center in the Utah desert where they were both working in organizations that provided support and education to internees.

A former Poet Laureate of San Francisco, who was interned in Rohwer, Arkansas, read one of her poems entitled 'Letter to My Daughter'.

Janice Mirikitani is a 'sansei', a third-generation Japanese American, who is also a Founding President of the Glide Foundation, a non-profit organization with the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, and married to the Rev Cecil Williams, Founder and Minister of Liberation at Glide.

During the afternoon the audience heard updates from Congressman Mike Honda in his keynote address and Mariko Nakanishi of Campaign for Justice - Redress Now! on campaigns to gain redress for excluded Japanese Americans who were not interned, German and Italian Americans, and Japanese Latin Americans.

Congressman Honda was particularly hopeful in the light of President Obama's election.

'We have a new administration, I believe we have renewed hope,' he said.

He is also hoping to recover $45 million that he believes is owed from the educational grant awarded in 1988 to raise public awareness of the camps, and to bring about the repeal of one final Act on the statute books that allows incarceration without the benefit of due process, ie can be used where there is suspicion without proof.

This is the Alien Friends Act (officially An Act Concerning Aliens) that authorized President John Adams to deport any resident alien considered 'dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States,' and which was aimed largely at Irish immigrants and French refugees critical of the administration.

The Act, along with three others that either expired or were repealed by 1802, were considered by Thomas Jefferson to be unconstitutional and void - see for further info.

The final speaker was Banafsheh Akhlaghi, Founder of the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement, whose concern is American treatment of Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian peoples in the wake of 9/11.

In my next blog are interviews with people who were interned in the camps...

pics show: the candlelight procession in the rain to the reception at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California; Michi Weglyn, taken from the Day of Remembrance 2009 programme

Day of Remembrance 2009 for Japanese Americans

The 30th anniversary of the Day of Remembrance for Japanese Americans who were evicted from their homes and sent to American internment camps during World War II was held yesterday afternoon.

Over 200 people gathered to commemorate the fateful day of February 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that allowed for the exclusion, eviction and imprisonment of about 120,000 Japanese American citizens and residents who were living in Hawaii state and the West Coast.

Yesterday's memorial service included rough cuts of a new documentary of the event, poetry, speeches and a candle-lighting ceremony with inter-faith rituals and prayers.

Afterwards, people spilled out of the Sundance Kabuki Theater in Japan Town and onto the rainy streets for a short procession to the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California for a reception.

The keynote address was given by Congressman Mike Honda who said that 'the genius of this country is that we can correct our mistakes', but that it was a 'greater genius not to make those mistakes.'

Participating in the event and in the audience were people who had lived in the camps as children. The camps had been set up immediately after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor with special Department of Justice camps for those most feared as an 'enemy within', for example, religious and business leaders and newspaper editors among the Japanese community, and ten other camps that President Roosevelt referred to as 'concentration camps.'

With many human rights activists also there, the Day of Remembrance was not only to reflect on the past, but to continue a fight for what they called 'unfinished business', seeking redress for over 2,200 Japanese Latin Americans who were forcibly deported during the War and used in prisoner of war exchanges between America and Japan, and to pursue a 'Never Again!' campaign against internment, focussing on post 9/11 attitudes to Arabs and Muslims living in America.

With little or no notice, Japanese Americans had had to leave their homes and businesses, sometimes selling up in haste at reduced value. Some families were separated and when they were released, were not allowed to return to certain areas. The trauma also had a long-term effect on health.

In 1988, after a long political campaign, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Known as the Japanese American Redress Bill, this awarded $20,000 to every internee and was sent with a signed apology by President Ronald Reagan on behalf of the government. Money was also awarded for an educational fund to provide education about the internment but, it was said yesterday, little of this has been given.

According to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the internment had been 'motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.'

For reports on the afternoon and interviews with former prisoners in the camps, see next blogs

pic shows posters with photos of the internment; and some of the candles representing the ten concentration camps and total of over 110,000 Japanese Americans who were held in government camps

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Robert Burns Anniversary BIrthday Weekend - 2

As Scotland celebrated the 250th anniversary of the birth of their bard, Robert Burns...see previous two blogs...not a sign of the occasion was evident in Princes Street, Edinburgh, heart of the capital.

The 250th anniversary was meant to be the start of a year-long spectacular entitled 'Homecoming Scotland 2009', a celebration of Scotland's contributions to the world designed to attract people, especially those with Scottish ancestry, to visit the country, trace their roots and embrace their ancestral culture.

Finlay, a man in his fifties, who works in the tourist industry didn't celebrate Burns Night 'because it's not something I'm used to doing, although I've nothing against him! I think it's fantastic the way it's been celebrated. It's known around the world. It's absolutely brilliant,' he enthused.

But regarding this 250th anniversary weekend, he said, 'I think there should have been more publicity about it because he (Burns) did stay in Edinburgh for a time.'

Finlay knew about the Homecoming Programme, because, he said, he takes an interest in such things. But he was critical of the way it was being run.

'There's no publicity. Local people don't know about it although there's lots of brilliant events,' he said.

How effective did he think it would be?

'As far as moving back to Scotland, I don't think so, but it should encourage tourism,' he said.

I told him about a new quest to establish a DNA profile of Burns that might then be used in a search for his descendants, reported in the Times Online - Burns fathered 12 children known to him by four women, six of whom died in infancy, but it is thought there could well be others.

The study is being conducted by Glasgow Caledonian University, who have been given permission by the National Trust for Scotland to collect the DNA from artefacts. They are doing this not only out of academic interest but also with the idea that it might draw more Scots back to the country this year.

'From what one hears, he (Burns) was a "bit of a lad",' said Finlay. 'It's interesting for me to find out more about Burns. I find it fascinating.'

Further along the street, Elizabeth was one of the staff in Romanes and Paterson, one of a pair of tourist shops selling plenty of gifts with Burn's picture on them.

Did she celebrate Burns Night?

'I didn't, but normally I would,' she said. 'Haggis isn't something we normally have on a Sunday. I had the family coming and I'm the only one who likes it!'

She knew about the year-long celebrations, but to my criticism that there was no information about the festival in the centre of Edinburgh, she said, 'You're right. We actually had great difficulty getting posters or anything to advertise it.'

It seems that while suppliers for shops have plenty of general souvenirs on the poet - Romanes and Paterson has a table laden with them - they have not prepared for this event.

'We did think about it,' said Elizabeth, and shops in general are struggling (to get anything). I don't even think anything happened here in the city. There was a picture in the newspaper of George Square and one of the buildings was lit up with a picture of Burns.'

I thanked her and left, and then wandered into Waterstones. Suddenly, I found a glimmer of what I had been searching for. In a fairly prominent position near the checkout desk were two displays of books on Robert Burns, with purple cardboard signs above them announcing, albeit in small print, the 250TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF THE BARD!!!

Tessa MacGregor, their Marketing Manager said, about the lack of publicity on Princes Street, 'it must seem odd that it's the 250th anniversary of the birth of Burns!'

She explained that the Scottish government have already come under criticism for lack of publicity in Edinburgh, but with a £500 million marketing budget, they have realised it's not enough.

'A lot of literary festivals will be programming events,' she added.

The Princes Street branch of Waterstones, she said, were enjoying success in promoting Burns' titles separately, with two books selling particularly well: A Night Out with Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems by Andrew O'Hagan, award-winning novelist and Scottish essayist writing about his favourite poems, and a biography, The Bard, by award-winning novelist Morgan Llywelyn and eminent poet and creative writer, Robert Crawford.

'Normally we have a very small window to promote Burns titles, but this year we'll continue to promote some of the titles and continue to see an uplift in sales,' Tessa said.

On another positive note she said there had been a lot of press coverage on Burns and that one of the concerns of Homecoming Scotland was 'not to burn - no pun intended, I'm sure - out too quickly, while admitting that the campaign had been 'very much marketed abroad rather than at home.'

Which made the point succinctly. For I discovered that if you look up the official website,, you are welcomed to a vibrant site with not only a feast of info but the sight and sound of Lulu singing in Argyll and Sean Connery singing in front of Edinburgh Castle.

You can browse a mini-biography of Burns, details of the birthday anniversary celebration in his home town of Alloway, and information on hundreds of other events planned so far that reflect Scotland's culture, heritage and intellectual achievements and the nation's contributions to golf and whisky. For lovers of the 'wee dram' there is a 'whisky month' coming up in May!

To my disappointment, though, I also learnt that I had missed a major touring exhibition of the national collection of Burns' memorabilia; only some 36,000 manuscripts, books, art and artefacts that had been in the National Library of Scotland behind Princes Street!

But the biggest disappointment remains the lack of any sense of a giant birthday anniversary party for the nation's Bard in its capital. The party in Alloway, Burns' birthplace, seen on the news that night was far away and the majority of tourists, I would guess, are in Edinburgh and at some point on Princes Street!

Edinburgh should be awash with the hundreds of poems and songs that Robert Burns wrote. His words should be streaming from lampposts, and filling shops windows and tourist sites. They should be printed on buses and shopping bags and inscribed on plaques on pavements.

The country should be celebrating...on the streets!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

pics show Waterstones displays; Princes Street; Burns on a tea towel in Romanes and Paterson

Monday, February 16, 2009

Robert Burns Anniversary Birthday Weekend

As Scotland celebrated the 250th anniversary of the birth of their bard, Robert Burns, not a sign of the occasion was evident in Princes Street, Edinburgh, heart of the capital.

The 250th anniversary was meant to be the start of a year-long spectacular entitled 'Homecoming Scotland 2009', a celebration of Scotland's contributions to the world designed to attract people, especially those with Scottish ancestry, to visit the country, trace their roots and embrace their ancestral culture.

But for visitors who were there, Princes Street was bare with no indication of the festival. There were no pennants on lampposts, banners across the street, posters. Even the Harvey Nicks Robert Burns Lunch was birthday bare...see previous blog.

How did I find out about it? I happened to google Burns Night. So the following day, I went back to Princes Street to find out what was happening...or not...

The first people I met were Lynda and Steve, a middle-aged couple from Leeds who were spending a few hours shopping in Princes Street and who were staying in Glasgow.

They were here because they had spotted a bargain weekend and jumped at it.

'It wasn't Burns night, it was the trip and the package that appealed to us,' said Steve. 'But the package was for Burns Night.'

What about the bard's 250th birthday? 'We didn't know it was a special anniversary,' he said, saying there had been no publicity about it when he booked.

I told them there was a programme of events that will run until 30 November, St Andrew's Day.

'You don't get the impression there's a rolling programme,' said Lynda.

'I didn't know there was a rolling programme,' said Steve.

But their Burns Supper had been a success. The haggis had been piped in - 'We like haggis!' said Lynda - and they had the traditional 'tatties and neeps.'

Next, I spoke to Nicky. Just tipping thirty-years-old, she was on her way back to work after a lunchbreak.

Did she celebrate Burns Night?

'I did Saturday night. I went to a friend's home for a Burns Supper,' she said.

And what was on the menu?

'Haggis, neeps and tatties, and shortbread!'

What did she think of Homecoming Scotland, I asked, telling her that a newspaper article I'd read online had said there were hopes that the programme might not only attract people to visit Scotland but encourage some of the diaspora to return permanently.

'I'd be surprised if it encouraged them to come back to live. They may come for a holiday,' she replied.

And the publicity. Did she know there was a rolling programme of events?

'I know there is, but I couldn't tell you what things there are, to be honest.'

Skye and Sarah were two Australian girls in their twenties working in Edinburgh as part of a work-travel round-the-world trip.

They had been in the city for a few months, but Burns?

'Never heard of him apart from yesterday on the telly,' said Skye.

'Even though they say "Burns Night", I had no idea what it involved,' said Sarah. 'I asked someone at work last week and he told me he (Burns) was a poet. That was it!'

But she was optimistic about the Scots.

'I think Scottish people do know who Burns is. One boy at work had a haggis party...whatever haggis is to do with Burns!'

Cameron and Robbie were two young professionals.

Cameron celebrated Burns Night 'with family in the home,' with haggis, neeps and tatties.

'I had a drink of whisky but no shortbread!'

About the Homecoming Scotland, he was positive. 'That's a good thing,' he said, although adding, 'I don't know how effective it will be. It's hard to gauge.'

He thought that the widespread TV coverage through sponsorship of the Scottish FA Cup, named for this season the 'Homecoming Scottish Cup,' would have an impact.

Robbie, however, didn't participate in Burns Night.

'To be honest, I didn't notice when it was. My family don't really celebrate anything traditional. I only know about Homecoming Scotland. I worked on one of the councils and did a bit of work on Homecoming Scotland.

'I think it's a great idea for people to trace their families and things,' he said.

In my next blog, I meet some people who work in shops and the tourist industry in Princes Street, and find one literary chink of light...

pics show: a piper on Princes Street in front of the Scott Monument, by Julie; Edinburgh Castle; Princes Street taken from the Scott Monument

Robert Burns Lunch - 250th Anniversary of Birth of Bard

It was Burns Night in Scotland on Sunday, 25 January, and not just any Burns Night, but one celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of their national bard, Robert Burns.

Haggis is the focus of the feast - the national dish. Across the country there were full-ceremonial Burns Suppers, while many restaurants and bars served a much simpler offering of the revered 'beastie', and families and friends gathered in homes for informal festivities.

Burns Suppers were started by friends of the Bard in 1801, five years after his death, at Allowway in Ayr where he was born and where the family cottage is now a national monument.

In Edinburgh the day before Burns Night we saw that the luxury store Harvey Nichols - known as Harvey Nicks - would be celebrating with a Robert Burns Lunch as part of their usual Sunday Jazz Brunch. Enticed by the mysterious-sounding haggis and clapshot, and cranachan, we went along to savour the celebration.

The lunch was in the Forth Floor Brasserie, whose name emanates from the views of the Firth of Forth. Set on the fourth floor, it is an informal restaurant with huge glass windows that give a magnificent panorama of the city.

And being Sunday, as we sat there we were accompanied by the soft swing of live jazz.

Scotch Broth was first on the menu. This was a delightful, lightly-coloured concoction of what seemed to be lamb stock with pearl barley, finely-chopped onions, carrots, and 'neeps' - the Scottish colloquialism for yellow turnips otherwise known as swedes.

Served in a small bowl, it was tasty and a much slimmer version of the traditional recipe being without mutton or lamb or as many vegetables.

The original broth is not extinct, however, for the website of Traditional Scottish Recipes says, 'In modern times many Scottish households still serve Scotch Broth as a main meal rather than a starter soup.'

But with our broth as a forerunner for 'haggis and clapshot', our attention soon turned to 'what is clapshot?!' Ye olde beastie with a relic of cannon shot? A uniquely preserved recipe handed down through the clans?

'Mashed potato,' said our friendly waiter, diffusing the romantic image that a piece of ancient Scottish tradition was about to appear before us in something more than dialect.

More particularly, Traditional Scottish Recipes describes clapshot as a 'traditional Orkney recipe of tatties (potatoes) and swede (yellow turnip) and is usually served with haggis', adding that it is sometimes called Clapshaw or Orcadian Clapshot.

Orcadian Clapshot sounds so much better than mash!

As for the haggis, the haggis in its full glory at a Burns Supper is an enormous entity heralded by a piper and carried high on a platter by the chef, with a bearer of whisky for the 'wee dram' following behind.

This is where the poet is honoured. Robert Burns' ode 'To a Haggis' is recited, and on the line, 'An' cut you up wi' ready slight,' the haggis is not only sliced into but on occasions, attacked. A vivid description of the capers of the ceremony is in Hugh Douglas' The Burns Supper Companion, which we picked up in a coffee shop earlier that morning.

But this was not a Burns Supper!

Our dish arrived, a smoothly whipped, yellowish round of mash atop an equally rounded, well-tamed offering of 'the beastie.'

At best, a large bagel of a beast that slipped in quietly to the strains of bebop without a note from a bagpipe.

Neither was the ceremonial Selkirk Grace, falsely attributed to Burns in the 1800s, said over it, a Grace that we used to read in a childrens' book of prayers and graces:

'Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat
And sae the Lord be thankit.'

In trepidation, I forked my haggis, for the contents of the original haggis are not for the squeamish. To Burns it was the 'great chieftain o' the puddin race', in other words, a sausage!

But what did they used to put in it? They raided the carcas!

Heart, lights - lungs - liver, beef suet, oatmeal and onions, all minced and sewn into the large stomach bag of a sheep.

Even the name tells you what it is, for 'haggis' probably comes from the old Scottish word 'hag' meaning to hack, says Hugh Douglas quoting from F. Marian McNeill in The Scots Kitchen.

Though he also quotes food specialist Clarissa Dickson Wright in her book, The Haggis: a Little History, who says that haggis was possibly taken to Scotland by the Vikings with the root of the name in Old Norse, Icelandic or even Norman French.

No-one knows for sure. But I had heard that these days a sheep's stomach bag isn't used, and as for the rest...

It was do and die?!

The haggis met my was sweet and spicy, light in texture, meaty and.....Quite delicious.

Looking up recipes afterwards, A Cook's Tour of Scotland by Sue Lawrence shows that today it can be made with lamb kidneys and shoulder, and beef suet and liver.

So there is hope, glorious hope!

The very interesting fact about haggis is that it is no longer made at home but bought in butchers, the Master of them being John MacSween who supplies superior haggis for formal occasions across the country.

And from then on, it was easy. Dessert of cranachan is another national recipe that features in the Scottish New Year and Burns Night Suppers. Also called Cream Crowdie, it is a sort of raspberry mousse made, in a recipe taken from Maw Broon on the Traditional Scottish Recipes website, from oatmeal, raspberries, cream, whisky and honey.

And accompanied by that great Scottish favourite, shortbread.

The meal was topped off with coffee and 'homemade tablet' of which show tablet to be little squares of toffee made with condensed milk, but which I would say here was an upmarket version of chocolate and nuts.

All for £15. And we left, without the crossing of hands and singing of the bard's most famous song, Auld Lang Syne.

For those of us not involved with Scottish culture and the full poetic versions of a Burns Night, where speeches are made and the bard's poems recited to preserve the Immortal Memory, the simpler lunchtime events contribute to the national day.

In Harvey Nicks, the food was excellent, the service friendly and efficient, the views stunning, the jazz great...but there was one detail missing...This was the 250th ANNIVERSARY of the BIRTH of their NATIONAL BARD - and there were no posters, pictures or was as if the store were on autopilot with their usual Burns Lunch on the annual calendar.

Where were the birthday banners and a piper for the special occasion?

Afterwards, as we walked up Princes Street, the heart of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland...not a sign of the Bard's birthday celebrations.

So the following day, I went back to Princes Street to investigate. See next blogs.

Pics of haggis and clapshot; cranachan; and coffee and homemade tablet, taken by Julie

Monday, February 9, 2009

A San Franciscan-trained chef is creating a culinary stir in Palm Springs with...square tomatoes!

Yellow, red, orange, green and sometimes purple, these stellar tomatoes take diners by surprise in the restaurant at the La Quinta Resort and Club. After all, have you ever

eaten square tomatoes before?

I must confess we hadn't, and neither had our colleagues.

But there they sat in a petite, rectangular dish, glowing with an equally esoteric 'dandelion infusion'.

It needs to be mentioned, just casually, that the tomatoes weren't actually square on the vine; they were crafted by the hand of Chef de Cuisine, Sean Webber, into beautiful bite-sized cubes.

But the sight of this gastronomic artistry makes an excellent dinner starter in more ways than one!

What gave 31-year-old Sean his idea of square tomatoes?

'I don't remember exactly,' he says, seated a few mornings later in the sushi bar area of his restaurant, Twenty6.

'I wanted the food to be artistic but at the same time easy to eat.'

And the dish helped.

'I saw that dish....and I loved it. I said, "Okay! I want to place my Caprese on that dish!"

And everything fell into place!'

Not that square tomatoes are the sole accomplishment of this award-winning chef.

Trained in San Francisco at the California Culinary Academy, one of three top cordon bleu schools in the country, Sean's first professional post was at the Ritz Carlton hotel near Union Square. But not for long, in fact, less than a year.

'I had longings for warmer weather. Wearing a sweatshirt at three in the afternoon in July wasn't a southern Californian boy's heart!' he said. 'But,' he added, 'it was the only thing in the city that wasn't completely to my liking. I loved San Francisco and I had quite a bit of family up there.'

Ousted, though, by the fog and cool summer temperatures, Sean said goodbye to San Francisco on Sept 1, 2001, setting out for a two-week holiday designed to be followed by a search for new work.

'But in the middle was Sept 11,' he said drily, 'which made it very interesting to try to find a good position given that the economy slowed down so much!'

Despite the terrorist trauma gripping America, however, four restaurants in sunny southern California cast eyes at him. One was the celebrated Cuistot Restaurant with chef Bernard Dervieux who had been running 'one of the most successful restaurants in this valley for 20 years,' said Sean.

Bernard himself trained under French Master Chefs Paul Bocuse and Roger Verge. Bocuse, according to Wikipedia, is considered to be one of the finest chefs of the 20th century. Together with Verge and a few others, he is counted as the father of nouvelle cuisine, was one of the chefs for Concorde's maiden flight, devised a famous truffle soup for a presidential dinner at the Elysee Palace, and inaugurated the Bocuse d'Or award, a competition likened in a Reuters report to a 'culinary Olympics' that has chefs sweating in training for months!

The Cuistot Restaurant was the obvious choice.

Over the next four years, imbibing this rich culinary inheritance and the hot Californian sun, Sean rose to glory. The accolade of Southern Californian Restaurants Pastry Chef of the Year was laid upon him by the Southern Californian Restaurant Writers' Association.

And he created a strawberry cake with a cream filling, called Fraisier, that Bernard praised as 'one of the best he had had in the US, and one of the best he had ever had!'

In the middle of his time there, Bernard commissioned a new restaurant 'from the ground up', which gave Sean invaluable experience in opening a new restaurant.

But such outstanding success with pastries meant that professionally he was being 'pigeon-holed' with desserts when his sights were set on broader gastronomic horizons.

'My whole career from school has always been the duality of pastry and cooking, with the exception of the Ritz Carlton where I was pastry only', he said, - and until now when he has stepped away from pastry to concentrate on cooking.

On a mission therefore to 'reinvent myself', he bade adieu to Bernard and slipped, still beneath the southern Californian sun, to San Diego to the Manchester Grand Hyatt. After about 18 months, he got a phone call from a good friend who was Chef de Cuisine at Azur, then the fine-dining restaurant at the La Quinta resort.

He accepted the offer of a menu tasting, and was back two weeks later as Sous Chef and Pastry Chef, settling into the beautiful Coachella Valley at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Within a short time he was innovating French style: he changed the bar into a wine and cheese bar - 'cheese is a very big passion of mine!' - rounding out the season with about 40 cheeses, and put two crepe stones on the bar to serve freshly made crepes. 'I miss that. That was very fun!' he said, reminiscing.

Because it all came abruptly to an end.

One night last August he was woken at 2 am by a phone call from his Executive Chef: the restaurant was on fire. So badly burned was it, it now sits barricaded and under reconstruction at the entrance to the resort. The only good news being that the dining room in the lobby from when the resort was founded in 1926, survived.

For Sean there was a cloud with a silver lining, though, because he had been scheduled to work at Twenty6 - named after the founding of the resort - the day after the fire, 'so then I was just here permanently,' he said.

Now, as Chef de Cuisine, he is making gradual changes.

'I'm doing it in slow stages so we don't upset our local clientele too much. I also want to make sure that both the kitchen and service staff have an easy transition,' he began. 'Of some of the changes that I have made so far, the most popular has been my new Caprese Salad!'

We were back to square one, or rather square tomatoes - 'McGrath Farms heirloom tomatoes' according to the menu, to be precise.

'When I have good local farmers, I want to make sure I promote them as well,' he said.

The dandelion, it turns out, is an unusual German vinegar with sugar and spices.

'So you're not crushing dandelions!' I quipped.

'They would be difficult to find here!' he countered, 'but my mother used to find dandelion leaves for a salad.'

'Mother' is second-generation Italian-American, and the other side of Sean's family is Irish - hence his name. He was born and raised in Riverside, about an hour away from Palm Springs,

When did he first know that he wanted to cook?

With a wide grin, he held up three fingers.


On the Italian side of the family he was surrounded by mammas: a great-grandmother, a grandmother and her sisters, and a mother. And he was the only male allowed in the mammas' kitchen!

'All that family cooking, and I was put up on the counter and allowed to watch this,' he recalled. ''It was my two grandmothers who really made me realise I wanted to cook.'

But could that small boy ever have dreamt that he would one day outcook his mammas!

Of the entrees at our dinner that night, I had braised beef short ribs with thyme jus, creamy polenta, and kabocha squash-fennel ragout. The meat was beautifully tender and the overall result extremely tasty. As, I'm told, were the other dishes on the table: a grilled opah with a miso yaki glaze, wasabi whipped potatoes and a daikon radish slaw - 'I really like that sauce. I love that dish,' said Sean - and a striped bass with bacon-shitake mushroom risotto, English peas and caperberry jus.

But while he produces his own creations of fish and meat dishes daily for both the lunch and dinner menus, essentially he has inherited a menu.

'I just made it a little more appetizing, increasing the flavours of everything, properly seasoned food with a good depth of flavour,' he said, and for me that nailed it. I told him there was something about the richness and balance of flavours that makes the food stand out.

'That was my absolute first goal, to make sure the food was memorable,' he said.

He also makes the occasion memorable. Towards the end of lunch or dinner, diners can suddenly find their chef greeting them at their table with confidence and sociability.

What are Sean's favourite foods?

'If I have one weakness, it's potatoes and bread - Irish roots!' he said, and then paused to reflect. 'But bread and cheese - that's another story!'

The paradox of 'too much of a good thing' rings true, though. 'I don't really eat desserts because I spent so many years creating and tasting them.'

But as Chef de Cuisine, does he have any in-put in the desserts?

'We talk things over,' he said of Executive Pastry Chef, David Nelson, and went on to announce a new creation that they were finalizing, a chocolate basil cake. Basil is from the mint family, he explained. 'It's (the cake) so good. If you didn't tell anyone it had basil in it, you wouldn't know. It's minty, but not quite! David had the original idea and I tested it once and fell in love with it and we're talking back and forth about what we want to put with it.'

Sean's influence is not just with food but extends to the next generation of up-and-coming chefs. He maintains links with his school in San Francisco, offering internships to them, the other cordon bleu schools and in New York.

The Food and Beverage Manager for Twenty6, Will Senza, was also with us during the interview. Only in post for one-and-a-half-months, he was already very much enjoying his job.

Like good dishes, Will and Sean appear to complement each other.

'I think Sean and I both have a passion for this business and our product,' said Will. 'And when you care as much as we do, you have a tendency to want to get it right...everytime!

We want Twenty6 to be the place to go in the valley. Not just a resort restaurant but a destination restaurant.'

For a man born to cook...consider it a fait accompli!

Pics show: Sean by the open part of his kitchen; Will Senza and Sean; one of Sean's lunchtime creations