By Milton Lum, Contributing Writer
The quintessential star of the traditional American feast was not present during my earliest celebrations of Thanksgiving. Growing up in the Territory of Hawaii, isolated from the continental United States by the vast Pacific Ocean, traditional American celebrations such as Thanksgiving and Christmas assumed a character all their own.
In territorial days following World War II, island culture was developing as a blend of customs from the varied ethnic groups living there. The first to emerge was pidgin English, comprised of words and phrases from Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese ethnic groups imported to work the sugar and later pineapple plantations. When spoken rapidly in a sing-song delivery, complete with idiomatic omissions, pidgin sounded like a foreign language to a visitor from the Americas.
Traditional American holiday celebrations became infused with a unique island flavor. “Mele Kalikimaka,” composed by islander Robert Alexander Anderson and made famous by Bing Crosby, was one of the earliest examples of introducing the world to a Christmas tradition without snow using the Hawaiian language. Holiday foods likewise became a blend of ethnic dishes. Turkey, pumpkin, and potatoes were not part of the usual diet of the ethnic groups noted earlier. They were more expensive, and few islanders had the experience of knowing how to prepare them. My earliest memories of Thanksgiving were nothing like those portrayed in Norman Rockwell’s painting Freedom From Want.
Informality was the custom and dress of the day. Suits, dresses, and shoes were for weddings and funerals but not for holiday celebrations. Dining tables made from wooden planks on sawhorses and covered with butcher paper were set up in the carport or under a canvas tarp. Wooden chopsticks, paper plates, and napkins were stacked at the beginning of the buffet table. Dinner was served any time after noon, and the custom for most families was to invite friends, neighbors, and business associates. My grandmother was the second to the last of thirteen sisters, many of whom were already widows with large extended families. Invitations were extended to all with the expectation that many would not come, except for the closest relatives or friends returning favors.
For such a large gathering, we always celebrated at my maternal grandparents’ home, which made it easy as we lived next door to them. In my grandmother’s large kitchen, her sisters would gather early in the day to make dumplings of wonton or prepare vegetables and meat for the main dishes of the day. Gossip and family news, all transmitted in Cantonese Chinese, insured that the children buzzing about would not be privy to family secrets. We could tell because they would switch to pidgin whenever we hung around hoping to get some treat from them.
My grandfather, Gung Gung, was the chief cook and star of the celebration. His stove was a bisected fifty-five-gallon drum with a section removed from the side as a fire port. Two sections of rebar supported a large wok. I was enlisted to carry dried kiawe wood and kindling, and then I sat cross-legged on the dirt to watch the master in action. He was dressed in a sleeveless cotton t-shirt with a white apron wrapped around his waist. Wielding a metal spatula and a pair of long wooden chopsticks, he orchestrated a collection of meat and vegetable dishes such as pork fried rice, chicken chow mein, fried chicken wings, and fried wontons. He handed me samples of fried wontons and chicken wings which I flipped from hand to hand until they were cool enough to eat.
In the kitchen, my grandmother and great aunts made large pots of white rice and arranged the other dishes contributed by the guests. Hawaiian guests brought lau lau – steamed pork or fish wrapped in taro leaves, or haupia – a coconut pudding; and haole guests brought traditional pumpkin pie. Japanese guests would bring sushi wrapped in seaweed or sweet tofu. In those days it was a basic sushi, far different from the elaborate ones served in contemporary sushi restaurants. These were the post-war years and people were frugal, so the dishes were simple but delicious.
It was a time without football on television. ‘Talking-story’ was the order of the day. The memory of long days without a bedtime and adults huddled in conversations punctuated with raucous laughter is what remains of those early Thanksgiving celebrations. It seemed less formulaic, the preparation intense but less hectic, and the conversations animated. These are my recollections of Thanksgivings without turkey.