Wokkin' and Rollin'

When Denver's considerable Japanese-American colony decides to throw a party, everyone gets involved. The epitome of community events, the Cherry Blossom Festival--taking place this Saturday and Sunday--has risen and set downtown at Sakura Square for 27 years, but not without the help of a whole network of elders, parents and kids who pull together annually to make the Denver Buddhist Temple fundraiser a success. The evidence abounds throughout the festival grounds, where you'll find everything from Taiko drummers to Akita dogs on display, but nowhere is it more apparent than in the temple's gym, where a heap of food is served to surging crowds each year. The Cherry Blossom Festival's food bazaar is truly a thing of cooperative beauty--a well-oiled, delicate piece of machinery fueled by sheer manpower.

Ruth Suekama, who turns eighty this year, has been helping in the kitchen since the festival's inception in 1972 and even remembers its predecessor, the Wisteria Festival. Needless to say, she's seen a lot of changes: "In those days, we ran out before we even got started. One lady let us use her kitchen--we were making all the food at her home." Festival food crews have since moved into the temple facility, although the spirit of camaraderie is still there among the cooks, young and old.

How much sustenance moves through their capable hands? For this year's menu of curry, pork chow mein, beef teriyaki, fried cabbage, various kinds of sushi and all-American franks for the kids, the shopping list includes about ten bags of cabbage, 500 hot dogs, 500 pounds of pork, 1,000 pounds of rib eye, ten pounds of tea and 24 eighty-pound sacks of rice. Food committee chairman Joanne Knight says planning--at least the learn-from-your-mistakes variety--begins even before the previous year's festival ends, but things won't really step up until December, when the Rockies schedule comes out. "We have to squeeze in a weekend when there's no Rockies game," Knight notes. "Most of the people at the church would probably be at the game anyway, so we'd have no volunteers. So maybe we're selfish in a way."

Well, maybe. Cooking actually began in April, when volunteers baked, steamed and froze the sweet-bean-paste-filled pastries called manju. But the frenzy of vegetable and meat chopping, sushi making and stir-frying doesn't begin until right before and during the festival, when around 100 cooks convene in the kitchen. "On Saturday morning, the men come in at five in the morning to make rice for the inari and sushi rolls," Knight says. "Then the ladies make them constantly until early afternoon. On Sunday we do the same thing. We can't be sitting around.

"The little kids help out, too," she adds. "You see the little ones, maybe eight or ten years old, cleaning tables or pouring tea." Slap-happy jokes keep everyone on their feet while the giant woks--the biggest one measures 36 inches across--fly in and out of the kitchen.

And, of course, they have each other. "I couldn't do it without the ladies like Ruth," says Knight. But her appreciation for elders such as Suekama goes deeper than that. "Ruth is my parents' age," she says. "And my generation was brought up with respect. When you see one of the elderly people picking up a bag of flour, you go over there and do it for them. They've given their lives to keeping the church going. Now the younger generation has to start picking it up."

--Froyd

Cherry Blossom Festival, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. July 17-18, Sakura Square, 19th and Lawrence streets. Festival dance, 7:30-9 p.m. Saturday only.

 
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