Turkey, Tofu and Sushi

By Joan Leotta

Both turkey and tofu are welcome at my Thanksgiving table. We, my husband and I, are confirmed “turketarians” (breast meat only) but our children did not hold to that. Jennie decided early on to boycott turkey and my delicious, New York Times inspired hazelnut stuffing.

So, I began to make a ham for her and others who might not like turkey as well as we.

When inviting people, I always ask if there are dark meat fans among them. If the answer is yes, then I add turkey legs to my pan (yes, you can buy them separately!).

Vegetarians, though, are another animal (all puns intended). I do not believe in making them forage among the side dishes for something to fill up on before the pumpkin pie. Early on in my family cooking career, I faced the vegetarian challenge and had to “up” my game for guests.

Our daughter Jennie was band president her senior year and the band was hosting a group from Australia. We agreed to house two girls. The week before the group was to arrive, I got a call from the coordinator: “Joan, I know you like to cook. We’ve assigned you the two vegetarian girls. You don’t mind do you?” I laughed. Our daughter and some friends were planning to take whoever stayed with them to the Outback Steakhouse one night! I had posed the question about vegetarians, and our daughter had responded, “Mom, no Australians are vegetarians.” Needless to say she had to eat those words (groaning pun!) along with tofu stir fry, ratatouille, and several other vegetarian entrees while the girls were here. Cooking for them was relatively easy since dairy was allowed, but in later years, as my daughter began to accumulate vegan friends in college, I expanded my repertoire to include vegan options. At Thanksgiving time, I have those recipes in reserve. When necessary, I label the various dishes, or place them in serving dishes of the same color or pattern so that the vegetarian and vegan folks can simply serve themselves at the table without feeling any stigma.

But I think the best “twist” on Thanksgiving for us was the year we served seven Japanese guests and they brought rice balls and sushi to the feast. I used to help out at our church’s English as a Second Language program. I became close to a woman named Akiko whose husband has been assigned to a job in the Washington D.C. area. She and I met outside of class and talked and talked! I invited her, her husband and their three children, who went to an international school, to celebrate this most American holiday with us.

I planned the menu carefully, and invited our usual guests as well, a couple whose children lived out of town and who that year, coincidentally, were hosting someone from Japan! “Bring her along,” I told Vivian. “Your friend will fit right in.”

I worked hard to make the menu even more “American” than usual. I even found a recipe for a “three sisters” casserole, which could serve as a main dish if my guests did not like turkey or ham. Native Americans called squash, corn and beans the three sisters. My recipe combined the tree in a casserole hearty enough to be a vegetarian main course (without the cheese it could be vegan). I served all of the usual suspects and considered serving some sushi as a first course, but I settled on smoked salmon as part of the appetizer array. I discretely moved it to the main table during the meal in case our Japanese guests did not really like any American food.

When Akiko’s family arrived, they brought two rice cookers to make rice balls for us – a tradition of autumn holidays in Japan. Their girls were wearing western clothing, but changed into Japanese traditional clothes and then performed a little autumn festival song for us. My children, along with the three girls (my daughter directed) then put on a short play that talked about Native American and Pilgrim friendship. At the table, we all chatted happily over the reason the various foods came to be a part of the American Thanksgiving.

“Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to become America’s symbol bird,” our son announced. Everyone agreed it was better that the eagle won. “After all,” I concluded, “we might not have thought it polite to gobble up the national bird. I’m glad turkey dominates the table and not our national symbols.”

We had such a good time talking, laughing over everything that I forgot to take pictures! It’s the only Thanksgiving not represented in our albums, but it is certainly deeply etched upon our hearts.

The following week, my friend Akiko called to tell me that all three of her children were stars in their respective classes, as the only students who had eaten this special meal in the home of a real American family. After she hung up, I thought about how very “real” our day was, how much our celebration had mirrored the spirit and actuality of the First Thanksgiving. Just like the first Thanksgiving, two cultures came together, brought the best they had to offer for everyone to share, and gave thanks for the food and friendship while enjoying each other’s company over a meal.

Three Sisters Casserole

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

3 stalks celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon cumin

4 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 cup diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup water or stock

½ cup rice

2 cups canned black beans, drained and rinsed

1 cup canned corn

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, and cook for seven minutes or until they begin to brown. Add celery, and cook a few more minutes, until tender. Add garlic, coriander and cumin. Stir in squash and tomatoes, making sure they are coated with the spices. Add salt and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in ½ cup water or stock and the rice and transfer mixture to a greased 2-3 quart or larger casserole with a lid. Bake for 25-30 minutes at 375 or until done. Check halfway through to make sure there is enough liquid.

Note: I further adapted the recipe by adding 1/3 cup grated cheddar cheese. Some put cornbread mix on top of the casserole instead of a lid.

About this writer

  • Joan Leotta

    Joan Leotta

    Joan Leotta of Calabash, North Carolina, has been playing with words since childhood. She is a journalist, playwright, short story writer and author of several mysteries and romances as well as a poet. She also performs folklore and one-woman shows on historic figures.

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6 Responses to “Turkey, Tofu and Sushi”

  1. Rose Ann says:

    Joan, great Thanksgiving memory! How lucky your family and friends are that you include their preferences as well as those of a traditional American event. Definitely the spirit of the holiday! Will try your recipe this year🍗🌽

  2. Pam Martin says:

    Nice memories Joan 🤗

  3. Mary Ann says:

    You are multi-talented! You use nouns and verbs to cook up a delicious essay. Thanks for the recipe.

  4. Linda O'Connell says:

    This was a lovely story, which demonstrated you served much more than food.

  5. As a vegetarian, I don’t expect special dishes to be prepared for me and often bring my own, but it sure is nice when someone goes the extra mile! Thank you!

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