An American at Thanksgiving

It began simply with the earnest desire to share Thanksgiving dinner with a few friends of the Shiso American population. 2008’s JETs asked their BOE to recommend a place with a kitchen big enough to accommodate this, then ordered a turkey from the meat guy website, cooked together, and split the costs amongst them all; the first Shiso Thanksgiving was thus held. Miriam Truppin-Brown says, “that first year it was more like just us, just dinner and a few friends … we really wanted to do something to celebrate the holiday. It was the first Thanksgiving away from home for most of us. Even that early on, we were very connected as a community, so it as pretty natural that we decided to do this.”

This November’s feast featured a saliva-inducing eclectic mix of traditional and not-so-traditional fare, from turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, roast veggies, cornbread, and pies galore, to spring rolls and fudge with Irish liqueur. The ALTs are encouraged to bring their favorite recipes, often from their own Thanksgiving experiences, so we get a lot of parental or grandparental influence. We’re bringing not only American culture to Shiso, we’re bringing our own personal culture as well. I made four pans of my mom’s sweet potato soufflé, because last year’s two pans were empty way too fast.

Many people in Japan have never even seen a turkey, let alone consumed one, but the lucky people invited to Shiso Thanksgiving have tasted this and more. Turkey is one of the American foods that the Japanese know too little; for all the turkey sandwiches and ground turkey substitutions I ate throughout my life, this beast of a bird is way more “American food” to me than the classic Japanese image of hamburgers. Yes, we have McDonald’s, but would you like some squash and corn with that?

Of course, the reason that Japanese people don’t eat much turkey is that it’s not easy to come by. The birds are in zoos, or aren’t at all, so you have to order your turkeys online, or make a trip to Costco. But if you’re cooking for 60, and we are this year, a trip to Costco isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Then we load up the cars, fill up our rented kitchen at the Gakuyukan, fill the turkeys with veggies, and the ovens with turkeys, and spend all day chopping, stirring, sautéing, taste-testing, and coping with measurement conversion. At six, the guests arrive and I attempt in my bumbling Japanese in my overwhelmed state to explain why we do this, what it’s all about.

Is Thanksgiving about “the Pilgrims and the Indians,” and what parallel can be drawn there between us ALTs and our Japanese community that keeps us from starving or freezing? Is this because we live in tiny apartments and can’t really invite our coworkers over for dinner even if we could cook? Is this because we need to do something to remember that even out here in a country that doesn’t celebrate our holidays, we are still Americans and can still spend a day cooking with our families, feeding our friends?

Traditions of housecleaning and doing the dishes for my mother have morphed into the assumption that we need to plan the Costco trip (after Kobe Conference? the weekend of the 18th?), track down ingredients not native to Japan, book rooms at the city Gakuyukan,  and get ahold of a bunch of casserole dishes and pie pans.

Starting in 2009, Shiso Thanksgiving has become a reasonably large event, costing more and requiring more from our planning and food-obtaining resources. Since 2009, we’ve asked for donations from attending Japanese friends to help cover the costs of room rental and ingredients. It has been suggested more than once and from more than one source that for a meal such as we are providing it would not be unreasonable to “charge” 1000 yen, but we’ve resisted that, as we’re not running a restaurant, and that’s not really in our spirit of Thanksgiving. We still just save receipts, add it up, and split the costs over all the ALTs.

Thanksgiving never goes off without a hitch, but over the years we’ve learned a few things, about cooking, about troubleshooting, and about little life lessons. I can personally attest to the fact that it’s fine to take out your frustration while mashing potatoes, but never while peeling them. We’re also reminded to be grateful for all the people in our town who fill up our lives (and our gakuyukan invite lists), and all the food and warmth we concoct together.

At the end of the day, it’s cost us all about 50 bucks and tons of energy and time, but we can only hope that our decorations and explanations have taught someone something. If nothing else, at least they’ve tried turkey now.

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