Nikkei Chronicles #1: ITADAKIMASU! A Taste of Nikkei Culture
Health, Happiness, and Bear Hanakuso with the Wine Gang
While other women look forward to getting their nails done or a spa day on the weekends, the high point of my week starts early Thursday morning when I start lunch preparations for a group of 30 or so people. As my kids slowly drift into the kitchen in search of something microwavable for breakfast, they are greeted with the smell of miso or freshly chopped green onion waiting to be plopped into a 14 gallon stainless steel pot. “Oh yeah, it’s Wine Gang day,” they mutter as they stumble into the living room to coma in front of the TV for a few minutes.
The Wine Gang consists of World War II veterans from the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team—you know, the guys who were just presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. They have been meeting at the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Clubhouse every Thursday since the 1960s, back when the participants actually drank imported wine and consisted almost entirely of 100th veterans, their wives and widows. While there is some wine consumed now, it has usually been imported from the Clearance Bin at nearby Foodland or dwells deep within a cardboard box with a spigot. There are still veterans too but the bulk of us are part of the ‘ohana—nieces and nephews of vets, friends, “calabash” relatives and current soldiers from the 100th 442nd Army Reserve. It is a really nice mix of local folk—you might be sitting next to ukulele maestro Jake Shimabukuro, a heavy hitting corporate head, or someone who barely scraped up enough money to bring a small plate of poke—with a spread of pupus going three tables long. If you are lucky, you’ll get to sit next to a real American hero but those spots fill up quickly.
Aside from the corps of regulars, the Wine Gang has always been a hot spot for special guests, particularly politicos during election years. Electability amongst the Wine Gang is not determined by your voting record or what you will do for the military but by what you literally bring to the table. Ask any vet and he will tell you which politician was “thumbs up” since he showed up with a case of beer (“da good kine in da bottles not da cheap kine in da cans”) and a platter of sushi (“da good nigiri kine not that cheap makizushi kine”) and which was “thumbs down” for bringing a bag of chips. If you spend any time with a Nisei, you know that showing up for a function with a bag of chips—even a giant Costco sized one—will forever brand you a social pariah. The only thing worse would be volunteering to bring napkins.
By the way, the previously mentioned Jake Shimabukuro is currently at the top of the special guest list since he not only comes to Wine Gang bearing large grocery bags of food (“From dat expensive place in Kahala, HO Foods”) but will play a few songs during lunch, eats whatever is offered to him no matter how cuttlefish-y in scent, says thank you for everything and most importantly, gives every Aunty a big hug and every Uncle a strong handshake when he leaves. Whether you are a celebrity or not, you will only be forgiven for bringing nothing to Wine Gang if you are cute and female and bear some resemblance to Misora Hibari in her early days.
I’ve come to realize that it is not what is brought to the table that is important to the veterans but the feeling and sentiment that is represented by the generosity (or lack thereof) of the donor. Having lived through the horrors of war, the veterans seem to instinctively know who is operating from the heart and who is full of “buru-shitsu”. For you, it’s just a small Tupperware container of homemade tsukemono but for them, it is a gift from your soul to theirs—each mouthful taking them back to the plantation days when picked cabbage that was all their parents could afford to feed them. For you, it’s just a store bought birthday cake but for them, it is confirmation that they survived another year, living for those buddies who they left behind on the battlefields of Europe. For you, it’s a pot of Matzoh ball soup but for them, well, let’s just say, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a bunch of 80 to 100 year old guys make kintama jokes all lunchtime long.
People often ask me why I enjoy going to Wine Gang each week, particularly as I spend the bulk of my time in the kitchen slicing and dicing, engaging in various waitress and bar-hostess related duties (all G-rated, I assure you) or running around “making plate.” While I’m sure from the outside, it doesn’t look like I am having much of a rewarding or even fun experience serving a bunch of Nikkei Super Senior Shoguns but it really has become my therapy and changed the way I live my life. To be surrounded by people who sincerely care about you—not what you do, not what you have (maybe a little bit of what you bring for lunch)—is a gift that few of us are fortunate to have. If I am not at Wine Gang, I know within minutes of the veterans reaching home, I will receive a whole lot of very concerned phone calls—“Hey, you catch cold?,” “Da Bozu never go school or what?,” “Hope you never bang your cracker box car again” and my favorite, “We all really went miss you today.” That makes it all worth smelling like katsuo dashi for the day or walking around with pieces of chow fun noodle stuck in your hair.
So, if you ever drive past a bright blue building with a flagpole in the front on Kamoku Street in Honolulu at lunchtime on a Thursday, please stop in and join the Wine Gang. It will be an experience you will never forget and something you will treasure forever. Only, please leave the chips at home!
© 2012 Jayne Hirata