My fondest memories of Christmas are the rich smells of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy served in the dining room whose table was far too small to seat the family and food overflowing from the dining table to the kitchen table to the counters in my mother’s tiny kitchen.
Her kitchen wasn’t the kitchen of today, where giant islands of granite anchor the miles of countertop that surround it, with institutional sized gas burners and stainless-steel ovens laden with Calphalon pots and pans. No, her kitchen was a two-butt kitchen, with turquoise metal cabinets and workspace that would suit a tiny house. In that kitchen she fed eight growing kids and a husband who expected meat and potatoes at every meal, with rice thrown in as a basic staple. From this kitchen came the twenty pound turkey, golden and steaming. Gravy made from scratch from the drippings of the turkey, her methodology ingrained in us to make it smooth, not lumpy.
Every holiday I can remember she pulled out the sterling silver that was buried in a china cabinet most of the year, and her better than every-day china. Her really good china she only had four place settings, and I never saw her use that set. But the Franciscan china was her go-to good stuff. The nice glasses, originally a set of eight, dwindled over the years until we used the everyday glasses supplemented with two or three stemmed goblets. She covered the veneer table with a red tablecloth overlaid with a lace one for a festive and elegant look, but frankly, the sterling made the table. Her silver candelabra graced the center, often with bright red candles, and for year as the youngest of the eight siblings, I got the children’s sterling place setting—special because I got to eat off the good stuff, even as my hands outgrew the youth-sized flatware.
After dinner we would have pumpkin pie, and sugar cookies that had been frosted meticulously, transforming the plain white cookies into fat red santas, blue angels with blonde hair, brown reindeer, and stars and snowflakes in a myriad of colors, with sprinkles and tiny, shiny silver balls.
Our table and our Christmas could have come out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Except we were all Japanese looking. My mother was a stickler for American and Western tradition, and she followed the book.
Our Japanese-ness came out on New Year’s Day. Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s we would have a mysterious package arrive. In the early years, we would have to go to the train depot or the Sawyer’s Store–a general store–along the railroad tracks to pick up the box. Later, it would arrive by truck or bus that would deposit our treasure at the meat market. Mom would pick up the crate and the most delectable surprises would be revealed—raw tuna and sea bass, shrimp, snow crab, octopus, cans of abalone, strange dried stuff that to this day I am not sure what it was. Sometimes there would be raw oysters. On New Year’s Day mom would have inari sushi (baggies) and maki sushi, as much sashimi as a person could eat, shrimp and vegetable tempura, sliced octopus (that I would have been touching in the refrigerator, seeing if the little suction cups still worked). I never acquired a taste for the manju sweet cakes, or for the fermented tofu that my dad called funju. We loved to challenge each other (and especially our hakujin friends) to see who could eat a pickled plum or the pickled red ginger without puckering—they were sooooo sour!
My Uncle Tom Kubo, who was a jeweler in Omaha and San Diego, sent a Big Ben clock to the boys and a Baby Ben clock to us girls every year. I don’t know where those clocks ended up—probably with my older siblings, and we probably ran out of them by the time I came of age. And then the relatives in Japan—those strangers from a far-off land—would send my mother and dad gifts—wall plaques or lacquerware serving pieces. Some of them were made to ward off evil spirits, and they were so scary to us little ones that there was no threat of us touching the off-limits and treasured gifts. The packages would come in boxes wrapped in thin crinkly brown paper, not kraft paper like in America, but thinner paper, not quite tissue but not far off. They would be tied in string and have Japanese writing in addition to the address in English. Mom sent them gifts, too. I don’t know what she sent. She addressed the packages in Japanese kanji. She sent packages to her mom and brother who lived in Hiroshima, but the gifts we got back were primarily from my dad’s mom and siblings; they embraced Mom as if she were one of their own.
I look back and think of the love and bonding that special foods enable. It came at a time when our little Montana pocket of family celebrated our special-ness by sharing the delicacies that came from far away–by bus or by train–to our little island in the West. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those mystical packages that came from Japan connected me to relatives that I was lucky enough to meet years later. Those relatives in Japan came from near starvation after WW2 to sending lovely and probably expensive gifts to us every year. And my family, near penniless when they left the Japanese Internment camp, celebrated Christmas and New Year’s with a feast created by the opportunities of America and the traditions of Japan.