Hawaiian Style Thanksgiving

Any haole in Hawaii would be crazy to assert that her white butt could be an authority on anything Hawaiian, but I am going to take a stab at describing how Thanksgiving is celebrated here in the Islands. Based on my own experience. Your mileage may vary.

When I first came to Hawaii, a single airman in the USAF, I was often invited to homes both on and off of Hickam AFB, for celebrations. The military does its best to acclimate its personnel into Hawaiian culture, even to the extent of having an orientation session to enlighten us about the subtleties of facial expressions (jumping eyebrows) and hand signals (shaka). Admittedly, some of us in the military embraced the message, and the rest shipped out as soon as possible because they couldn’t hang…loose.

About Thanksgiving dinner in Hawaii — the basics are all there: Turkey, stuffing, cranberries, green bean casserole (?), sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and gravy. At our house my mother-in-law will bring a mince meat pie, a pumkin pie, and one of my sisters-in-law will bring a pecan pie.

And then there’s all the stuff that localizes the meal as Hawaiian Style: rice, rice, rice; sushi, potato-mac salad, ocean salad (seaweed), fried noodles, poke (po-kee) (raw fish cubed and tossed with Hawaiian salt, seaweed, maui onion, green onion, chili pepper flakes, etc.), soybeans, May’s teri beef short ribs and Redondo’s red hotdogs from the bbq., etc. Then there might be some items that are luau mainstays: squid luau, kalua pig (smoked pork and cabbage, possibly cooked in an imu), haupia (coconut gelatin dessert) and a chocolate dobash cake from Napoleon’s Bakery at Zippy’s.

I mentioned yesterday that when I worked at Oceanic Institute in Waimanalo, we were invited to bring our turkeys to place in the pit they built to roast them. This is called an imu (ee-mu), traditionally dug for whole (dressed) pigs, but there’s enough room down there among the rocks and ti leaves for the pigs and, in the case of OI, about 40 turkeys.

As much as I’d like to romanticize the imu, it’s been given some modern twists. The process begins the day before when the pit is dug (often the same pit is used year after year) and filled with kiawe (mesquite), that is lit on fire. This fire can reach 20 feet in the air or more while the guys are feeding it. Rocks are placed in the pit to collect the heat. Then the guys unroll a giant metal grate, like a piece of fence or something like that and place it on top of the pit. Then goes the pig, the turkeys, the pork butts, the sweet potatoes, all kinds of stuff that do well getting smoked for hours and hours. All of these are wrapped in aluminum foil. My turkey had been rubbed in butter and Hawaiian salt and herbs, then in ti leaves, and then in foil, and then placed in one of those foil disposable roasting pans before I handed it over to Don Dela Pena, who helped engineer the whole imu effort. More rocks and ti leaves go on top, dirt is pushed on the whole pile, and the guys stomp on top of it to be sure no steam escapes.

Then out come the ukuleles, the guitars, the green bottles, and the talk story begins, lasting long into the night. A single plume of white smoke snakes into the sky.

The next morning Don and his buddies shake off the sleep and start digging open the pit. Each item comes out, identified and handed over to its rightful owner. When I got our turkey home, I slipped the meat off the bones and had a big bowl of Hawaiian Style smoked turkey to serve along with my traditional bird.

At our house there will be nine of us, but sometimes that number swells, depending on who is in town and if anyone is bringing a guest. Some of our neighbors have giant gatherings. Multiple pairs of slippahs and shoes populate the doorstep, the house overflows with smells and people, the men hang in the garage or in the backyard, the kids run rampant everywhere, the dogs howl, the Hawaiian music changalangs in the background, a little bit of pakalolo here and there.

If I missed something, let me know! I’m sure I did! I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Indian elements to some family celebrations here in the Islands. It’s impossible to really know. I never had sweet potato pie, but, I am betting there are families here that will!

Up the street is a neighbor who built an imu into his driveway. Some years I’d watch from my kitchen window to see him stoking his fire. Today I slept in, so I don’t know if the heat is on over there. But the neighborhood smells of mesquite, surely an indication that there will be celebrations all around us, while we have our Italian dinner tonight. I’m sure the smells will make me crave the wonderful turkey and all it’s localized trimmings, but we’ll be waiting until Sunday to have our own feast.

Happy Thanksgiving and Aloha!