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A Tokyo Thanksgiving

(post, Ellen Kanner)

To honor surviving their first year in a new land, the Pilgrims wanted to celebrate with a special feast. I felt the same way after my first year in Tokyo. I hadn’t done too badly as a new bride in a new culture. My husband and I were clearly gaijin — foreigners. I couldn’t read hiragana or katakana — Japanese characters — but I could navigate my way around the city by foot and by subway. I could chat with the woman who ran the noodle shop downstairs from our apartment — if the conversation didn’t go too far.  

But then November came, and I found myself yearning for a big American Thanksgiving.  

I missed making cornbread dressing with my mother. I missed setting what a friend called the bowling-alley table, because it was long — long enough to fit our boisterous mess of family and friends, my father carving the turkey with the electric knife-cum-chainsaw, the three cranberry sauces so everyone got their favorite, the divvying-up of leftovers, all of it.

I decided my husband and I would have our own Tokyo Thanksgiving, and in a rapture, invited our friends. At some point, the reality sunk in. I did not know how to roast a turkey. As a vegan, it never seemed important. But suddenly, it was. I placed a long-distance call to the expert — my mother.  

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Cranberry Sauce with Orange and Figs"]

I still have the letter she sent me, on yellowing airmail stationery, the one that begins, “Dear Ellen, About turkeys!” What follows are instructions so thorough, from thawing to basting, that Mark Bittman would approve. It also captures my mother at her most whimsical: “I am sending you a Woman’s Day magazine from 1982 (See! If you save things, they come in handy.)” And her most endearing: “Oh, I will miss you so much on Thanksgiving. It will be the first one you’ve missed ever. I know yours will be great and in the end, it’s the spirit that counts.” 

Bolstered, I set off to find a turkey. This turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. Western ways and Western foods are not prevalent in Tokyo, so I had to try several sources before meeting success. I paid a fortune, then schlepped the big frozen bowling ball of a bird several blocks before getting on the subway with it. 

Thanksgiving morning, I freed the thawed turkey from its wrap, and it was . . . odd. It had no wings. It had no legs. Vegan I may be, but I know what a turkey looks like. This was a big pale thing that unfolded into a sort of slab. I ran downstairs in a panic and consulted the noodle-shop lady. She studied the item and she looked at the label, printed in katakana. It was turkey, all right, she assured me. Turkey breast — eight pounds of breast, from the biggest atomic turkey in the world.  

Well, what could I do? I roasted it. My husband mashed potatoes, his specialty. I made the dressing, green beans, fresh cranberry sauce (only one kind — there were only half a dozen of us and I prayed our guests weren’t as particular as my own family), and pumpkin pie with whipped cream.  

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That evening, we gathered around our dining-room table, which, though it seated all of us, seemed too small. We ate and drank and laughed, and it was a treat. It was not home, but it was close — considering we were 7,500 miles away.

I’m back home now, and looking forward to hosting Thanksgiving. I outsource the turkey to my mother. She is, after all, the expert. That leaves me to make all the vegetabley extras that were always my favorite part of the holiday. 

Thanksgiving is less traditional with me in the kitchen. I try different things as the mood strikes me. But my mother and I still make the cornbread dressing together. And if I put new twists on family favorites, I hold dear to the Thanksgiving spirit. 

It is about bringing everyone together, preferably at a long, bowling-alley table. It is about remembering all we have, about celebrating with the foods of the season. As my mother wrote, it’s also about “good smells from the kitchen. And I always say a silent thanks at that time of year for all our blessings. I suppose I feel about Thanksgiving the way most people feel about Christmas. It has to be done in a very traditional way with all the trimmings to suit me (even three kinds of cranberry sauce).”


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