Growing up, the meals my Chinese family ate on Thanksgiving never seemed to match the mental image I had for what the feast should look like. (I couldn’t really see the Pilgrims stepping off the Niña and Pinta to a spread of sea cucumbers and shark fin soup with their new Native American friends.) So naturally, when I was finally free to realize theThanksgiving of my dreams, I went after it with a vengeance.
Since establishing my own household, Thanksgivings have been strictly “traditional”: roast turkey,mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, pumpkin and apple pie. Period. These traditions are enforced with an iron fist.The proper holiday table does not tolerate deviations and there’s no room in the spread for my Filipino-Mexican husband’s own traditions of Thanksgiving sides: tortillas and jasmine rice.
I was well on my way to producing another wonderfully tyrannical turkey-based feast when something funny happened. A year ago I was taking part in an Eat-Local Challenge, in which everything I ate for the month of October was grown in the Hawaiian islands. I discovered our farmers. Farmers became friends and meals became adventures:
Where would I forage for my next dinner? (The 6 a.m. Kalihi market? The ever-popular KCC farmers’ market? Chinatown, with pushy old ladies? Craigslist?)What fantastically delicious thing would I discover that would take my mind off bread and rice?
In the end, I did have quite a few fantastically delicious meals, but I never quite stopped obsessing about bread and rice…karma for oppressing my husband’s holiday traditions?
I momentarily forgot all about my feast fascism, and signed on to the idea of preparing a locavore Thanksgiving as my way of giving thanks for all the farmers and ranchers and fishermen that had nourished me for a month. Everything was to be locally grown. But then I realized what that meant: no turkey, no cranberries, no potatoes, no bread for stuffing, no apples, no flour and butter for piecrust! After an extended argument with the 12-year-old version of myself who believed adulthood meant turkey for Thanksgivings forever, I decided to take the plunge.
But if it was a shock to the system, I barely had time to notice. I spent days at Frankie’s Nursery inWaimanalo, watching the breadfruit ripen on the trees and discovering large, pink-fleshed mamey sapote, which tastes like pumpkin pie and is similar even in texture. I pried coconut meat out of the shell and grated and squeezed it through cheesecloth, an ordeal that took hours, just to get little more than a cup of coconut milk. I steamed taro, and then steamed it some more to get rid of that itchy feeling in my throat.
A friend brought somemahi he caught; we grilledNorth Shore Cattle Co. tenderloin; we braised Lana`i venison.When we were done, our spread looked about as “traditional” as the jellyfish salads of my childhood Thanksgivings. The only dish reminiscent of Thanksgiving was our pumpkin pie taste-alike: mamey sapote pie with a breadfruit crust.
One year later, as the holidays approach, I’m again faced with the decision to prepare a “traditional” Thanksgiving or go for round two of the locavore feast. And it turns out that a lot has happened in a year. The divergence between the two is not as wide as it was a year ago. Our farmscape is changing. In some regions of the United States, planting
potatoes, raising poultry, producing milk and butter might be the boring stuff, but the farmers who are undertaking these projects in O`ahu are the agricultural equivalent of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. And a year of being a farm groupie has unearthed some previously hidden and overlooked treasures like locally raised pigs and poha berries that provide a tartness similar to cranberries.
So I’ve decided this year’s Thanksgiving will be of the locavore variety. And yet, my table will more resemble the Thanksgiving spread of children’s coloring books than my first all-local production.The centerpiece will be roast chickens with poha berry jam (still working on getting it to retain the ridges of cranberry jelly sliced from a can) and gravy thickened with poi. Creamy mashed potatoes with milk and butter will bemy ode to the three staples we couldn’t easily get a year ago onO`ahu. Purple sweet potatoes mashed with tangerine juice and ginger will lend their vibrant color to the table. Still no stuffing, but kale sautéed with bacon cured from a locally raised pig will suffice. For dessert, a spiced kabocha flan, flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and coffee.
Some of the wonderful things about a locavore holiday spread are the stories behind the food that unfold at the table.Take the dessert, for example. It’s composed of ingredients from farmers I’ve met in the past year whom I admire. The eggs are provided by Peterson’s Upland Farm, run by a third-generation egg farmer with 100 years of stories to tell. One of thememories takes place in 1941 during the attack on PearlHarbor when the chicken houses, mistaken for soldiers’ barracks, were strafed. Luckily, there were no human casualties, just two chickens.
The milk in the flan is sourced from Big Island’s Island Dairy, which recently started providing milk to O`ahu; it’s one of only three dairies left on the islands. Newcomer Naked Cow Dairy on O`ahu is currently engaged in the arduous process of setting up milking and pasteurizing operations, but in the meantime O`ahu’s only source of island milk comes from Island Dairy on the Hamakua coast of Big Island. Island Dairy is groundbreaking in its experiments to stay viable: growing feed rather than shipping it in, recycling cow manure into the feed fields and installing solar panels.
The coffee steeped in the flan is from Harens OldTree Estate, run solely by Duane Harens, a sommelier turned coffee farmer and roaster who approaches his coffee trees as a winemaker tends grape vines. And of course, there are more farmers with stories I have yet to hear; I won’t be surprised if by next year I’ll have a locally raised turkey.
Still, I’ve come to terms with the idea that my locavore Thanksgiving may never look like the Thanksgiving feast of greeting cards. And yet, in a way, you could say it’s more “traditional.” The Pilgrims were locavores out of necessity; with my dinner I follow in their footsteps and celebrate the cornucopia growing in front of me.