THE BLOG
12/30/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Thanksgiving 1998: Forcefeeding Japan Out of Recession

Ten years ago this week Japan stunned the world with what was then an unprecedented $195 billion stimulus package. Its citizens were implored to spend the nation out of its ditch. Just in time for Thanksgiving, Japan had discovered the virtue of gluttony! I would invite my new Japanese in-laws to see how it was done.

My husband had been so revolted by his first encounter with American Thanksgiving that he had to excuse himself from my mother's table: a giant carcass sitting right on the same table where he was expected to eat! From a single plate, invisible beneath the swill of seven goos running into and over each other, including skin and bones.

As a foreign correspondent in the United States, he used the excuse of having to cover the Macy's Day Parade to avoid it for years, until we were finally transferred to Japan -- where I learned that Japanese have no interest in the Macy's parade. Nor in planned excess.

Why did I need to find a whole turkey, he wanted to know. Consuming with abandon takes work in Japan, where food is sold by portions, if not bites. The dainty turkey meatballs advertised at the local mart in our ex-pat neighborhood missed the point. I needed the whole bird.

The Tokyo American Club was offering a free 22-pound turkey to anyone who would invite a couple of U.S. servicemen for dinner. Just the thought of it moved my father, a veteran of Okinawa, to contribute two packets of Durkee's instant turkey gravy by mail from the U.S. The problem, I told him, was I didn't have space for two American servicemen; no, not even fighter pilots.

But my biggest concern was not the size of the guests, it was the size of the turkey. The only one that could fit in my Tokyo oven would be a don't-ask-don't-tell capon measuring 10" x 8" x 7" - which turned out to be exactly how they were thoughtfully sold there, at the foreigners' supermarket.

I ordered one for $200 and a foil roasting pan for $15. (My mother chided me from America for not taking advantage of the time difference - "How much could a turkey in Tokyo cost on the day after Thanksgiving?" But my Japanese mother-in-law was supportive, inspired by the government's simultaneous "Let's Buy America!" campaign intended to show America it was trying to chip away at the trade surplus.

I carried Tom home on the subway, his legs sticking out of my bag. I mashed Satsuma sweet potatoes (far drier than any turkey my mother ever made) and sauteed spinach with persimmons (an adaptation that we eventually brought back home). I served white rice in individual bowls, literally synonymous with "meal" in Japanese. For the turkey, I went to war with the aluminum and the miniature oven we had. The bird fit. The pan, however, did not. No one could persuade me to dismember the beautiful bird (no, not even in half!) My husband ended the stalemate by removing the oven rack and constructing a scaffold of long cooking chopsticks. He carried the capon to the table suspended thus.

Our Tokyo dining table serves as a minor coffee table in our present Manhattan apartment - the same size as the side table that holds up the creamed onions and turnips at my mother's Thanksgiving table. Nevertheless, I insisted everything go on it -- the turkey (no platter), the serving bowls, the gravy, the Japanese dinner plates that were too small to contain a drumstick, the rice bowls, the forks, the knives and the chopsticks, the three children, the in-laws. The trick was to keep everything circulating or at least airborne, like the rice bowls. My husband knelt down to carve the bird.

Kabocha pie is better than pumpkin, I confirmed many years later. The three I made for the First Japanese Thanksgiving never made it to the table. The first one streamed onto the floor when its $6 aluminum pie pan folded in my hands like a Salvador Dali clock on its way to the oven. The second pie slid directly from the oven rack to the floor. In the late Clinton era, Japan had not yet made the world's best oven. For some reason its racks were designed to tip at 45 degrees when they were withdrawn. Wiser, I carefully reached inside the oven to pull out the last and final pie. The oven mitt melted into it.

When dinner was all over, we turned on the giant television four feet away and watched sumo. And I gave thanks.