Image: Manny Pangilinan

Over the Pali and through the tunnel, to aunty’s house we go

So,” I said to a friend, a local girl–German, Irish, Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese– “doesn’t Hawaii celebrate Thanksgiving in its own, particular way?”

“Doesn’t everyone?” she asked.

Don’t Southerners serve cornbread stuffing? Don’t Easterners make Indian pudding? Wouldn’t Northwesterners be more likely to have apple than pumpkin pie?

“Okay,” I said. “So maybe we’re not that different.”

Turns out, as I suspected all along, we are.

The thing is: We eat all day. Mainlanders sit down at a particular time around the table. With us, there’s a meal before the meal: Pupu.

From noon on, there is poke, boiled peanuts, poi, dried aku, arare and Chex Mix. There is maki-zushi and inari-zushi. Trays of noodles. No one comes empty-handed. The uncles brought ‘opihi and pipipi and tako and dried marlin before these treasures got so scarce. The aunties brought their special desserts, prune cake made from scratch. There was never a vegetable tray. Poho (waste!)–nobody would eat it. “We didn’t have dinner. That wouldn’t give you enough time to eat!” recalled DeDe Reiplinger Sutherland of Hilo, sister of the late, beloved comedian “Rap” Reiplinger. “You say noon to 1pm and then you eat at 3pm. Everyone comes and goes.” (A new documentary, “Rap: Hawaii’s Comic Genius,” airs at 7 pm on Thanksgiving. Prepare to laugh until you wet your pants.)

Then there’s the meal after the meal: “When everyone starts sneaking into the kitchen stealing the last of the gravy to put on leftover rice. AFTER they’ve had dessert!” said Evelyn Tamura of Kaimuki.

“The biggest problem with Thanksgiving is there are never enough leftovers,” said Tamura. That’s because everyone is expected to “make plate” as they leave.

Also not mainland-style: There is rice. There is mac salad or potato-mac salad. There are Portuguese bolinghas. There are roasted or mashed Molokai sweet potatoes. There is, in short, every form of refined carbohydrate known to man.

Chef Glenn Chu of Indigo Eurasian restaurant says one thing that differentiates the Islands is, we don’t have to drive all the way over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. We just cross the Pali, maybe. But then we cross back to go someplace else. And someplace else.

Every relative is expected to “show face” even if they don’t stay for the meal. (If it weren’t for Thanksgiving and funerals, I don’t think I’d recognize my nephews if I ran into them in the street.)

A newly engaged friend said her first Thanksgiving with her intended was like a marathon; they had to hit six places!

The location changes as the elders age, migrating from Grandma’s to Auntie’s, but the general configuration is the same. Food all over the house, or lined up on portable tables in the carport. I know one family that does Thanksgiving at the beach.

“We never sat at the table, it was always so loaded with food there was no room anyway!” said chef Sharon Kobayashi. It wasn’t until she got into the food industry, she said, that she realized the effort her grandmother put out on the big day: “Although she worked Thanksgiving mornings at Hamada”s Okazuya in Waipahu, she came home and made sushi for our table as well.”

Alan Tsuchiyama, KCC culinary instructor, remembers go-for-broke feasts from his childhood on Kauai: his mother’s perfectly textured stuffing, the Farmer John ham, Grandpa’s tempura sweet potato, mac salad made with spaghetti and tuna, the way Dad liked it, Mom’s Jell-O cheesecake. “My mom appeared to work in the kitchen effortlessly… To this day, I am amazed,” he said. I remember my vovo (grandmother) talking to the turkey in Portu-glish as she stuffed it and sewed it up. “Vir aqui, turkeylinga.”

There have been changes from the ‘50s thru ‘70s. Increasingly, the food held in outstretched hands is not homemade (the Costco syndrome). Even chef Chu admits his catering staff makes most of his family meal. “I like to make it look homemade, but it isn’t,” he said with gentle humor.

This reflects an around-the-country set of seemingly opposite but equally strong trends: More purchased, ready-to-serve food, and more fresh, healthier dishes, such as salads instead of canned peas, whole grain breads, roasted vegetables instead of casseroles swimming in butter or cream.

Susan Iwase, who grew up on a farm out Waianae way, says her family now gets their turkeys done at the annual Kamehameha Schools imu. Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms smokes a turkey most years but no longer bothers carving it–just tears it apart by hand. “That’s a farmer for you,” he said. Damien Tavares, 22, says his family has struggled with Thanksgiving of late. There have been two divorces that caused rifts. A couple of key people are out of work. The elders are aging. “We’re kind of a Costco party group now. We buy stuff. We always take stuff, but we don’t necessarily cook it. The aunties make the turkey. Last year, I had just come back from school in the Pacific Northwest and I took a whole smoked salmon. Other than that, it’s… whatever.”

At least that’s not so great a change. Hawaii’s always been a little bit “whatever,” melding cultures and adopting dishes to make new and old family members feel at home.