My mother is one of the world’s greatest cooks. She never reads any cookbooks, and her dishes are never fancy or complicated. Yet every night we sit down to a delicious dinner of soup, greens, tofu or bean sprouts, stir fried chicken or beef, and rice. The sounds of the vegetables hitting the oil and the fragrant smells wafting through the house call us to dinner before my mom can. Every dish complements the others in color, taste, and texture. One will be green, another white; another will have red or orange accents. One dish will be crunchy, one crisp, and one creamy. Meals are perfectly balanced, just as she wishes our lives to be.
Except for Thanksgiving dinner.
When I was growing up, my family always tried to celebrate it like other American families did. It was one of the few days my father got off from work. My mother tried to cook a rare special dinner of “American food” as a treat. And it was the only day of the year my father led us in a prayer of thanks before we ate.
I never understood why other Americans got so excited about Thanksgiving. I understood the giving thanks part. I was thankful, too, for the freedoms and opportunities our family has had in America. But it was also a holiday about food, and the food, as I experienced it, was so bland and unappetizing. How do they eat it, I wondered, let alone celebrate it?
Every year, it was the same routine. Early November, my mother would start thinking aloud, “What do Americans eat for Thanksgiving?” then take my brother and me on a special trip to the grocery store to buy the turkey. That is what they eat on Thanksgiving. However, since there were only four of us and since my mother did know how to roast a turkey, she would forego the whole bird for a frozen loaf of turkey meat in an aluminum tray. Then she would pick out a package of gravy mix and a box of instant mashed potatoes. (Until I got married, I did not know that one could make mashed potatoes from real potatoes.) Sometimes she would also get a head of iceberg lettuce and a new bottle of Thousand Island dressing.
On Thanksgiving night, we sat down to a strange, barren table. Usually, the center of our dinner table was filled with so much food and color that there was barely enough room for us to hold our rice bowls. On this night, however, the center of the table was bare. Instead of eating family style, my mother served our food directly onto large dinner plates like Americans do—one small slice of turkey meat loaf, one scoop of mashed potatoes with a well of gravy on top, and a few leaves of iceberg with dressing. There was so much space between the three scrawny food items on our plates that the plates looked naked. I scrambled through the silverware drawer to find four forks and knives that matched, sort of. My father lectured us on Western table manners—how to hold the knife and fork properly, and that we should cut only one piece of meat at a time. The table felt cold, empty, with no fragrance wafting anywhere. Instead of crisp and tender meat and vegetables, each bite a contrast in texture and taste and color, everything was soft and bland and beige. We ate stiffly and silently. It was the only night of the year I would go to bed hungry. No seconds, thank you.
One year, when I was in high school, we were invited to the Shigematsus’ house down the street for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a revelation. Mrs. Shigematsu roasted a huge, golden brown turkey glazed in teriyaki sauce and stuffed with rice, and made his famous mashed potatoes with lots of garlic and butter. They also had gravy made from shitake mushrooms, stir fried green beans, sweet potato tempura, platters upon platters of different kinds of sushi and sashimi, and fish cake soup. For dessert, there was mochi and pumpkin pie and genmai tea. I never knew American food could taste so good.
Their house was warm and bursting with all their friends, also second and third generation Japanese Americans from Hawaii. Living far from their families in Hawaii, they celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas together every year. A shout went out as each family arrived at the door with yet more food. Everyone was laughing and talking at once with that same Hawaiian/JA accent. Auntie Amy explained how she made her “Tunnel of Fudge” cake. Auntie Shirleen showed off her latest quilting project. The now-famous musician John Nakamatsu, then only in junior high, played piano while our neighbor’s daughter, Heidi, accompanied him on the violin. This was not the Thanksgiving we read about in school books, but a Thanksgiving I could finally understand and appreciate.
After that, my family began to create our own Thanksgiving dinners. We begged our mom, “Please, no more American food.” Instead, we had Mongolian hot pot, roast duck stuffed with sticky rice, or even just dumplings. Serving fabulous Chinese feast food made the day an occasion worth celebrating. Now we could invite all our relatives to join us. Aunt Suzie’s family from Oakland and Aunt Ingrid’s family from Palo Alto—and sometimes my grandparents, too, if they were in town—came early in the day and spent all afternoon cooking in our kitchen. I sat at the kitchen table cleaning bean sprouts and eavesdropping on all the family gossip. My dad took the younger kids outside to chop down a Christmas tree and to pick persimmons. When darkness fell, we set the table with my mom’s best rice bowls and her good “company” chopsticks.
And then we feasted!