When my husband and I first decided to move to Japan, one of my earliest concerns was how I would manage holidays away from my family. Every year at Thanksgiving, my family gets together for an identical meal; from the way the turkey is cooked to the way the fruit salad and sweet potato casserole are prepared, it never varies. Every year I have exactly half a piece each of pumpkin and apple pie. Whipped cream on the pumpkin, ice cream on the apple. Year after year it was the same glorious spread. Until 2008, I had never missed a Thanksgiving with my family in my 20-odd years of life.
Needless to say, Thanksgiving in Tokyo did not initially sound doable. Being a million miles from my family and all the cozy moments full of traditional Thanksgiving fare left me feeling a little hopeless. However, that feeling eventually gave me extra ammunition to recreate the holiday that I loved in a completely unfamiliar place. Without an oven. Scary!
The first year was hectic but successful. I made everything as close to my mom’s traditional recipes as possible. We found a friend with an oven, so Brad literally walked an entire turkey almost three miles at 6 a.m. to begin the brining process. After numerous trips back and forth, his final victorious trip included a beautifully (if not perfectly) cooked turkey. Golden brown skin covered flavorful and juicy meat that was devoured by almost 20 guests in our tiny Tokyo apartment. The most memorable part of the evening was when I refused to let anyone help with the dishes. In an attempt to keep anyone from feeling guilty, I hid the dishes under the sink. The result? Guests were happy and full, but Brad and I stayed up until 1 a.m. cleaning.
The second year went a bit smoother. I collaborated with a neighbor who had a larger apartment than ours. Rather than making every dish myself, I shared the workload. And instead of seeking out traditional ingredients, I tried to use foods that were similar in texture and flavor but ever-so-slightly nontraditional. For example, I used kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) instead of traditional sweet potatoes in the sweet potato casserole. That’s when it hit me. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be the same every year!
This may seem like a delayed reaction, but my family is cemented in wonderful, long-standing traditions and it can be difficult to break free.
So how can you update your Thanksgiving with a few unique twists without losing the traditional feel? It’s really pretty simple.
When I made my sweet potato casserole last year (normally made with yams, marshmallows, brown sugar and pecans) with kabocha, the texture and flavor of the dish stayed true to the original. However, telling guests that they were eating Japanese pumpkin in a traditional Thanksgiving meal was exciting and delicious!
Change is a good thing. But if you are in charge of Thanksgiving dinner, try not to change everything too drastically all at once. There is no need to stress yourself out with recipes you are unfamiliar with if you already have a few aces up your sleeve. Instead, change small aspects of individual dishes. You can always change something else next year!
The thing I have to remind myself each time I have dinner parties, especially around the holidays, is that although the food is a central part of the event, it isn’t everything. Stay true to what you know and what you are comfortable with. After all, you need to relax and enjoy yourself, too! Rather than trying to transform yourself into Thomas Keller for Thanksgiving dinner, do what you know best. Add some techniques that are new without losing sight of what you can “bring to the table.”
When you send out the invitations for your dinner, have guests sign up to bring something. Give them a little direction. For example, ask for a “bean dish” or a “potato dish.” Allowing guests to bring one of their favorite dishes is an easy and low-stress way to add a twist to your Thanksgiving table.
Make the holiday unique and a true celebration of the season by using in-season fruits, vegetables and flowers. Pumpkins, citrus fruits and chestnuts are just a few examples; pile them in a simple bowl and use as a decorative centerpiece. You’ll have stunning decorations in no time and plenty of time to focus on food and friends!
Cheers to the beginning of what is sure to be a delicious and beautiful holiday season!
Rachael White is the author of the blogs Set the Table and Tokyo Terrace. After four years of living, eating, and entertaining in Tokyo, Japan, she and her family have relocated to Denver, Colorado. Rachael is constantly searching for new ways to make entertaining easier and more interesting for guests in a variety of environments and situations. In addition to food blogging, her recipes have been published in cookbooks including Foodista Best of Food Blogs and Peko Peko: A Charity Cookbook for Japan and in Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper. Originally from Minnesota, Rachael strives to recreate recipes and settings that reflect Midwestern comfort with a modern twist.