Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving in Japan: A Virtual American Feast

It's that time of year again, when the question rings from abroad, "What do you do for Thanksgiving in Japan?"

Japanese "Labor Day Thanksgiving," 勤労感謝の日, usually falls a handful of days before American Thanksgiving.  However, Labor Day Thanksgiving doesn't revolve around poultry dishes or Pilgrim stories, nor is the celebration wrapped around the US Labor Day traditions of outdoor barbecues or back to school shopping blitzes. Nonetheless, it is a red marked holiday giving thanks to laborers for their hard work, and thus granting them a day of rest* from the job.

*On that note, I might have to write some over-time checks for the local team of IT laborers that I had working on placing my Thanksgiving orders on their holiday. That said, I guess I created my own Labor Day (on-line) shopping blitz too.

Thanksgiving Day, the way Americans know it, does have a direct translation in Japanese: 感謝祭 = kanshasai. In reality, it is more widely understood and practiced as, "Thursday," and thus remains school or business as usual. Moreover, Black Friday does not kick off the Christmas shopping season, although my guess is that Cyber Monday deals probably can feed off the World Wide Web-airways' leftovers, even if there is no turkey sandwich or turkey soup to be had while surfing.

Well then, what do I do for Thanksgiving?  I do what it takes to recreate my Mom's dining room setting and menu from 6,600 miles from Columbus and about as far from the necessary ingredients.  The main-dish challenge serves as its own, 2 to 25 pound obstacle. "Turkey" is considered a gamy meat in Japan, and not farmed nor found in or around local or even distant Japanese supermarkets.  That's right, you can find raw sea slug or guts and intestines of almost any animal in the ecosystem at a any random corner stand, but turkey?  Even liberally basted with wasabi and soy sauce, that would be considered "fowl."

The Hunt for Orange October: The following photo illustrates how we weren't going to let the unavailability of American pumpkins stand in our way to make Jack-O-Lanterns at Halloween. With such cultural dedication, we felt Plymouth-rock solid inspiration to forge ahead and create an American Thanksgiving in Japan with limited resources.

Japanese winter melons, 冬瓜 - togan, are dusty green
until you take your daughter's paint set to them.
The past few years I have spent 2 hours each way in the car and $26 round trip on the toll roads to get the coveted, imported bird from Costco, Japan. This year, our family school calendar(s), pocket book and energy level just didn't see the journey as worth it.  Instead I decided to take my stubborn dedication to local markets, including my home computer, which started before Halloween Costco discontinued importing American pumpkins and I dedicated my Pioneer-like efforts to hunt down ingredients locally and see what I could come up with on-line.

(Foreshadowing: we will be giving thanks to Amazon this year.)

We set our Thanksgiving dinner plan for Saturday, November 30.  The Hunt for Traditional Thanksgiving began on November 4, with my first trip to the FarmNo, it wasn't the beloved Tuller's Fruit Farm of Columbus, Ohio, fame - home of the pumpkin patch, every vegetable and fruit in season, and fresh pressed cider and apple fritters by the baker's dozen.  My Honda hayride led me to Kaldi Coffee Farm. You would think I needed the caffeine fuel to deal with my wish list, but no, it's the name of an import mart at the "Mallage" in town. Yes, Mallage is a "cutsie" Japanese-English name of the mall.  

I was able to fill the bag (pictured) with the spices needed to make an onion dip for an appetizer, to make gravy despite the lack of a gravy boat, flavoring for pumpkin pie, and, as well as some baking ingredients for corn bread and pie crusts. It was never a fixed dish at the Zidonis family table in my memory, but while in line at the register my eyes caught a glimpse of the top shelf (in the crowd of shoppers that day, only my eyes could) showcasing a can of cranberry sauce.  I wondered how many years it was there, then nabbed it anyway. After all,  it will at least serve its purpose in the form of adding color and tradition to the table; tradition, that is, according to the slide shows of Thanksgiving meals that I have been showing my students over the years in American Cultural Lectures.  Finally, I've made myself an even more practice what she preaches teacher.

Canned goods and bottled spices, fresh from the "Farm,"
 just the way the Native Indians intended.                                             
Next step: stuffing.  I'm not interested in stuffing. Apparently my Dad was spoiled by his mother's sirloin tips-based homemade stuffing, so any kind of breaded filler never made it near our spread growing up.  But I ordered two boxes of all American KRAFT via Amazon Japan from a company called "Oasis" in order to feed at least two of the Dilenschneider mouths at our table this year, and just to have something familiarly "Thanksgiving" looking to cover up the fact that all else may fail.** Even though I don't need two boxes of stuffing for 4 people, the delivery charge seemed steep for just one box, considering it was the same for two.  I guess I've committed to putting it all together again next year.  High hopes. High apple pie in the sky hopes. 

**At the time of this writing, the French-farmed-frozen turkey on order is a day late on delivery. That detail alone could stand for the "all else" in the "may fail." I'm hoping the President didn't pardon the one bird with my number on it! 

Hoping to "stuff" the guests since the arrival of the elusive turkey is "up in the air."
About that turkey.  I will never reveal how much I am paying per pound, but I spent hours researching it over days, so I would add my labor per hour charge and the price should really be double the already 300% mark-up I put on my charge card.  Maybe I should have heeded that "Labor Day" Thanksgiving after all and not been so quick to mouse-click "add to shopping cart."  

I tried to lessen the yen and dollar damage by going through 17 screens to apply for an Amazon Japan gift card on the reward page of my Japan based credit card.  It was the least I could do, considering the Settlers were learning to build fire to make it all happen at the First Thanksgiving.  Nonetheless, the final screen informed me that I can expect my card to be processed within 8 weeks. Well, that will make for quite an affordable Martin Luther King Day feast, since my attempt at "hunting" down a discount wouldn't work for a purchase this week.

The mystery bird: appropriately out of focus
I found a couple of options.  One would have been an easy, quick-fix, boneless wonder that would just require an hour in the oven to give it that baked feel.  But I went for the whole beast, and narrowed down the company based on the size and the price were not going to cancel Christmas.  I purchased the poultry delight on Amazon Japan, from a company called, 男の台所 = otokonodaitokoro. The vender's name might have been my first clue of trouble.  Translation: Man's Kitchen. Well, it's a day late so far, and if the CEO of the company is anything like the man in my house growing up or the men of the house now, the package might contain a box of popcorn, a bag of beef jerky and a copy of the 2006 Ohio State vs. Michigan game.  But we are giving Thanks after all, so this is all coming from a place of love and respect. Besides, it is those fond memories I am trying to recreate, remember?

I lifted the digital image of the mystery bird (above right) from my account purchases page on Amazon.  If it doesn't make the scheduled delivery, we might just be licking the screen.  I'll break open that second box of stuffing if need be, however, since I am not going as far to order Yankee Trader turkey scented candles for effect. Even I have my on-line shopping limits this holiday season.

How to roast a turkey without a conventional oven
If I am going to roast an animal, I need some supplies.  An oven.  That's right, there are no conventional ovens in Japanese homes.  They are equipped for boiling seasoned mountain vegetables, stir frying, deep frying, and there is a drawer extention of the range that serves as the fish grill.  So I have 2 microwave ovens: one if for reheating purposes, the other has a rudimentary "oven" function.  Both are small, but that's par for the course in Japan (well, courses have 18 holes, but fees are steep, and we're back to the detour of an underlying yen-based theme).

I needed to order a roasting bag to get this baking process right, and to have a chance at "authentic" tasting oven baked delicacies.  Also, to be safe and consistent, a meat thermometer. The safe part is to thoroughly cook the beast, the consistent part, was not to botch my shopping record by ignoring the, "people who also bought "A," also bought "B" notice on my account update. Those accessories came directly from Amazon Japan with no middle man (or Middle Man's Kitchen), therefore, it was a next day delivery, to the university where I work.  I think the secretary that signed for the package had stories to tell at her dinner table that night.

My next step was to be a little stress relief.  Get some local goods to actually have something that didn't come in a cardboard box with bubble tape and packaging receipts.  I went to a local farmer's market for the Japanese pumpkins (kabocha, often called "winter squash" in English) and other fresh produce for vegetable dishes and casseroles.  A neighborhood farmer has a stand on his property with a small "100 yen" deposit box where I loaded up on home-grown potatoes and yams.  So the mashing and starch dishes are covered.* (*I couldn't resist the covered dish/pot-luck reference.)

Neighbor's farm plot: The potatoes (far left) and chives (far right),
 and Japanese radish in the center will meet our table.
Local shopping was successful, and I could count on the 業務スーパー = gyomu supa grocery store to provide the beverage and dairy in bulk!  The basis of any American feast begins with a bulk cart load, and 業務スーパー is the closest I can get to a made in Japan big haul.  Wine and spirits for the cook and guests, milk and ingredients for cheesecake and pastries and just in cases are now covered.

It's Wednesday evening in America. My friends and family are either pre-baking, pre-basting, or hitting the roads to beat the weather or the traffic to see relatives.  I will oversee my daughter on her homework, and set our family of 3 off for school in the morning, a Thursday as usual.  But not a Thursday to take for granted.

No day of the week, month or year that our family is "in our usual" routine is taken for granted.  Hopefully I'll sign for that frozen turkey that will fly in tomorrow from France, via the Man's Kitchen in Japan, and start my pre-baking on Friday. We'll welcome my Tokyo-based brother-in-law, Joe on Saturday for a grand feast of fun family and conversation.  I'll be exhausted and exhilarated and on every level. On Sunday, we'll wake up to actual coffee from Kaldi Coffee Farm and I'll begin counting down the days until I round up the challenge next for an American Thanksgiving in Japan, 2014.

Uncle Joe and Hana, an American Thanksgiving in Japan 2012

Bob, Hana and Uncle Joe: Trimming
the tree preview, an American
Thanksgiving in Japan 2011

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