It can take years to learn a foreign language, and even longer to understand another culture, but a good meal can cut through those barriers in minutes. Perhaps that’s why we continue to celebrate that mythic November meal when Native Americans first shared maize with British Pilgrims.
To this day, Thanksgiving continues to resonate even with those who have adventured beyond their homeland to settle somewhere new. For thousands of Guamanians scattered throughout the world, Marianas comfort foods that are usually served during Thanksgiving continue to bring Diasporas together and break the ice with strangers.
“It’s all about getting them accustomed to the food; we always have to point to people and say, ‘Come here, come here,’” said Carlos Leon Guerrero, owner of Fina’dene Food Truck based in Killeen, Texas. “As people are walking away I say, ‘No, no, no, come eat!’”
Leon Guerrero has never been to Guam, but he serves the island’s famous BBQ lunch plates to Texans and Chamorro-transplants alike. He is the son of the late Isidro Cruz Leon Guerrero from Hagåtña and a 30-year veteran in the restaurant industry. In addition to empanadas, shrimp patties, adobo, and red rice, Leon Guerrero offers King Car Lemon Tea whenever he can find it. The truck even has its own cha-cha theme song. “On Thanksgiving, we do both American and Guamanian food,” Leon Guerrero said. “We always have kelaguen, and my dad always used to make the stuffing.”
Eddie Mafnas, the founder of Oahu’s Firehouse Food Truck, spends Thanksgiving Day making sure no one on Oahu goes hungry. Volunteering with the Hawaiian Institute for Human Services, Mafnas dishes out fresh fish and deep-fried turkey to those in need. While he makes his living as a private chef—catering for everyone from President Obama to Jay Z—he also volunteers with Kupu, a non-profit service-learning program reaching out to at-risk youth.
“Food brings people together; food brings kids together,” he said. “When it comes to food, it opens their eyes. Every day they want me to make red rice, and there’s a finadene bottle in my kitchen…Some of the kids are from Guam or Chuuk or Saipan, so the food really resonates with them.”
Being a cook isn’t just Mafnas’s job, it’s a legacy, passed down from his parents and grandparents. An heir to Mangilao’s old Matanane Potu bakery, Mafnas began helping out in the kitchen and barbecuing meat before he even started going to school. “That’s how my grandma fed 13 children, through potu. Now I guess they passed it down to me,” he said.
Honoring the traditions of Micronesia in Polynesia, however, does have its challenges. “There are a lot of things I can’t get out here,” Mafnas said. “I like the coconut crab, and it’s $8 a coconut. You’re limited to freshness and availability of produce. You can’t grow boonie peppers. A lot of laws make it hard to get those traditional ingredients.”
Variations among traditional recipes are something Stephanie Sosa loves to spot. The entrepreneur behind Salem, Oregon’s Island Girl Lunchbox said part of the fun is in the uniqueness of each cook’s dish. “I have been to a lot of Chamorro food establishments, and I definitely do things a little different,” she said.
In addition to making red rice musubi, Sosa puts her own spin on how she serves kelaguen: Achiote mixed into the corn titiyas and plated as a taco. “I may differentiate,” she said, “but I stay true to certain things that remind me of a taste of home. Home for me, is my nana’s house.”
Although Sosa has never been to Guam, she learned to cook from her nana, who “never cooked American food. I don’t know if she didn’t know how or if she just wasn’t interested, but she only made Chamorro food.”
Each Thanksgiving, Sosa serves “a little of both, because I was raised doing both. When we did it at my nana’s, she would do white rice, because that’s what she liked, and red rice and mashed potatoes for my uncles.
“Every week, I still have to explain what red rice is and kelaguen, Sosa added, laughing. I have it on my menu, that it’s served cold, and they [customers] are still like, ‘What is that? What is that?’” As Sosa shares her ingredients and explains how her food is prepared, she is opening a dialogue between two vastly distant communities.
Mainland foodies know a good thing when they see it: the Killeen Daily Herald elected Fina’dene Food Truck the best in Central Texas, and Island Girl Lunchbox has won Best of the Mid-Valley two years in a row.
“I want to make sure that I identify with and share with Chamorros, not only stateside, but back home,” Sosa said, adding that she regularly connects with other Guamanian businesses, including Ed Sablan of Portland’s PDX 671 and Bahakke Brand. As for her own venture, Sosa sees “the food truck as carrying on my grandmother’s legacy…for the younger generation coming up, it’s important for me to share the culture with my son. I pride myself on sharing with him as much as I can.”
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