Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thanksgiving turkeys in Japan

Japan does Halloween, Japan does Christmas.  Japan does a kind of weird version of Valentine's Day that seems like a scam to me.  But what Japan doesn't do is an American-style Thanksgiving Day.  That's understandable, but understanding does nothing-- nothing-- to soothe the annual turkey addiction withdrawal jitters I suffer from so fiercely at times I want to roast and eat my own feet.

Just last night I was lying in bed after a busy day, reading a book when suddenly and vividly the sense memory of my dad's turkey-juice covered fingers on Thanksgiving morning came to me and filled me with a nostalgic ache fierce and hopeless.  My dad had massive fingers, his entire hands brown and battered and strong, usually with a plastic bandage somewhere.  Each Thanksgiving he would wake up early (he woke up early most days, even in retirement, come to think of it) and take out the turkey he'd left thawing overnight in the refrigerator.  He'd prep his grill, get the coals just right and start the long process of smoking our holiday dinner.

Later in the morning, I'd go outside with him-- usually the weather would be cloudy and cool, sometimes windy as well-- and we'd open the grill and gaze at the shiny, crinkled turkey skin just a shade or two darker than dad's own and our mouths watered.  The Macy's parade was just a distraction that couldn't completely conquer the growing need for everyone in our family to devour that bird.

When Dad judged it had smoked long enough, he'd go out with a black baking pan and pull the turkey from the grill and bring it inside where it'd cool a bit and he could slice it.  Unjoint the legs and wings and set them on a white porcelain platter with pink roses and green leaves that matched our dinner plates.  Stab it with a two-pronged fork and trim along its back where the white meat sat.  Dad would cut some dark meat-- my mom's preferred selection-- from the thighs and my brothers and I would come in and peel strips off and eat them.  Juicy strips oiling our fingers and sometimes chins if we didn't pop them in our mouths just right, a kind of furtive quick motion because anything you could get away with short of actually cutting off a hunk of meat was fair game-- bits of skin, meat threads dangling, bits that fell off Dad's knife.  These you could poach.

And finally, around noon, the meal.  The sights, sounds and smells stay with me.  The taste of the stolen scraps, the moment of absolute fulfillment when we were allowed to eat-- to gorge, really-- on our legitimate portions.  But mostly I think of my father, who loved smoking a turkey for the four people who meant more to him than anything else in the world, and who had strong, weathered hands like a landscape unto themselves.

Well, you can possibly get turkey in Japan, but I haven't been able to yet.  One year I ate grilled squid for Thanksgiving after working all day at a conversation school.  One of my roommates had at the time what I still consider a brilliant idea: cooking traditional sides and substituting KFC.  That seemed as good as you could expect in Japan.  Another year, another school and some friends and I went to an all-bird meat izakaya and had chicken and duck, which was an even better substitute but still not the thing I jones for.  Turkey, dammit, real turkey. 

Others have managed it, but they seem to do mostly the oven-baked variety.  This is fantastic if that's what you grew up with.  I've tried it because my sister-in-law does her turkey that way and yeah, that's good stuff.  My brother always smokes one, too, because in this he and I are traditionalists (our middle brother experiments with fried turkeys, also nice) and what we crave is our father's smoked turkey.

The Meat Guy sells a ton o' turkey, including it seems "turducken," which should please John Madden should he ever decide to relocate here.  I don't know how many drumsticks the Meat Guy's turducken sports, though. There are also turkey subs at Subway.  In this city, at this late date and because we don't have a grill or an oven, it's looking like my choice is the izakaya, KFC or Subway.

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