Dinengdeng & Pinakbet

Thanksgiving Has Always Been My Favorite Holiday

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran

Granted, my family never had a Hallmark card gathering around the table for a meal with the good china. Growing up, someone in the extended clan would host and roast a turkey or ham while the rest of us would bring other dishes potluck style—a Thanksgiving menu blending the expected Pilgrim fare, local favorites and Ilocano entrées.

We’d serve ourselves buffet style on paper plates and scatter throughout the house or yard to eat, or watch the Cowboys or Lions game. Now there are maybe three NFL games that day. I don’t recall drunk uncle moments or angry political talk (except once when I put my foot in my mouth while in Los Angeles in law school visiting kin and made a snarky remark about the Marcos regime—never realized there was no running water or schools in Ilocos before President Marcos).

During college (in an era before cellphones and email), I spent four of those holidays visiting various mainland towns.

Thankgiving dessert pies. What don’t I love about a Thanksgiving meal?
Photo courtesy Gil Keith-Agaran

First year, I traveled at the end of Indian Summer—when the leaves are still changing color in New England—with one of my freshman college roommates to his uncle and aunt’s home in Greenwich, Conn., followed by a drive into New York City. We had lunch at the home of their friends which overlooked the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade route—Underdog passed by the window where we watched warm and cozy while the people along the roadway were bundled up for the winter chill.

We weren’t the only guests arranged at a long table in a formal dining room, although I now realize I was the only Filipino there. I suppose I was always one of the few people of color at these gatherings. Finding out I was from Hawai‘i, folks asked if I’d attended Punahou School since I was enrolled at that college in New Haven. I told them I was graduated from Maui High School which was not as familiar to them—the island had not yet been branded as a destination of its own in Hawai‘i.

It was the first sit-down holiday dinner I’d attended. The meal was the traditional American menu of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and yams, and pumpkin pie. Our host at one point expressed some disappointment his son had not gotten into one of the Ancient Eight. My roommate and I found that uncomfortable but the wine was very good.

Another year I went to Chicago with a second roommate (with a side trip to the University of Wisconsin for a hockey game and fraternity party, spending the night on the floor of his high school classmate’s dorm room). It was my first experience with large scale Greek life. Dinner was with his family in Highland Park, Ill., a suburb later depicted in an early Tom Cruise movie, Risky Business (1983). I only noticed people’s homes in my college friends’ towns were bigger than the houses in Kahului.

Traditional Thanksgiving fare (From top left, clockwise) of turkey with ham and dressing is served during times I was with friends or family on the Mainland. Thanksgiving with the clan—friends and family—here on Maui was always a mix of potluck dishes and home-cooked Filipino food along with some of the traditional Thanksgiving fare.
Photos courtesy Gil Keith-Agaran

Junior year I caught a Greyhound bus to upstate New York for Thanksgiving with a “summer team” member. Those teams annually served Doris Todd Memorial Christian Day School and church on Maui, made up of students from various Christian and Bible colleges. They worked on maintenance on the school and church property, witnessing to local kids, and counseling at Christian Camp held at Camp Maluhia. I’d kept in touch with him after re-connecting while visiting Liberty Baptist College during Spring Break freshman year. Thanksgiving with him was communal, with the centerpiece a Thanksgiving Day Church service followed by a luncheon.

After college Thanksgiving meals were usually with classmates during law school (potluck of the traditional American menu) and with friends while living on O‘ahu—back to small kid time. We took part in the turkey fryer phase and the communal imu at Campbell Industrial Park. We also lazily ordered Thanksgiving food from Zippy’s.

My wife’s clan shared fairly traditional meals, with her five brothers and sisters and their families all gathering to the family’s Hill Country ranch from Austin, Houston, Santa Monica and, of course, Maui. There was an adult table and another for a large brood of grandchildren. With a number of skilled cooks in the family, dinner was a sumptuous affair.

Some years ago, it was during a Thanksgiving gathering at my mother’s house that we learned my father-in-law had passed away accidentally. He and my mother-in-law were spending the event with a brother-in-law and his friends in Marfa, an isolated artist colony in West Texas. My wife’s family had not gathered that year in Austin for the holiday. Instead, we would all travel to Austin for the funeral and then a few days later fly to Hilton Head for their uncle’s funeral as well.

Since his passing, her clan has held gatherings at her siblings’ homes in Austin and Houston. Some years have just been some siblings and some grandchildren as they scattered off to college. But the skilled cooks have still served fine meals.

In recent years, we’ve accepted invitations to friends’ larger gatherings for lunch. With my sister sometimes working on Thanksgiving Day, we’ve planned more intimate dinners instead—usually just my mother and spouse with my sister and others in our immediate household. We’ve cooked a little bit of turkey (perhaps a breast or a leg since few in the family really liked big fowl), some ham or prime rib, a pinakbet or dinengdeng of what was in the garden, and some apple or pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving Day remains filled with memories and lessons. Lessons I’m still piecing together and remembering. I understand some of the history and myths about it, and the meanings we’ve woven into the day —both religiously (church service) and secularly (football, Black Friday)—and personally. It’s perhaps still my favorite holiday.

Retired from State service, Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran practices law in Wailuku.