By Larry Blagg
Japanese consumers are for the most part either Buddhist or Shinto in their religious affiliations, so the phenomenon of Christmas doesn’t progress much past the commercialization of the holiday that us Americans have turned it into.
For example, the Japanese have a quirky custom of giving and/or consuming a round white-frosted cake decorated with fresh strawberries and stenciled with “MERRY X-MAS” as the dessert course for their Christmas meal. Quirkier yet is the practice of buying a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken complete with all the trimmings of coleslaw, cob corn and mashed potatoes. In the two weeks leading up to Christmas, KFC stores and their customers book the pickup of their chicken buckets in five-minute intervals to keep lines to a minimum. And every store has a large plastic Col. Harland Sanders statuette dressed in a Santa Claus suit. For real!
So when Walter Mondale was the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, his wife Joan set out to not be the pampered, sheltered wife, and instead, befriended the wives of fellow ambassadors and got involved in both the Japanese and foreign communities.
She also was a strong believer in cultural exchange and agreed to help market California Raisins in Japan.
Shocked that only white-frosted MERRY X-MAS cakes were available at this festive time of the year, the California Raisin promotion team contacted Joan and asked if she had a favorite holiday recipe that included raisins. As luck would have it, she did. She offered up her now famous pumpkin raisin bread recipe.
As the discussion ensued, she noted that some of the other ambassadors’ wives would probably have their own nationality’s specialty. As a result, the UK, for instance, presented a fruit cake and a minced-meat pie. Germany offered a fruit-laden stollen bread that as the story goes, simulates the blanket containing the infant Jesus. Italy delivered a recipe designed for a light and delicious panatone filled with a variety of dried fruit. And Mexico debuted another sweet bread with dried fruit.
The ambassadors’ wives were caught up in the spirit.
Representing more than 15 nationalities, the Madam Ambassadors set out to educate Japanese housewives about their luscious treats and urge housewives to scrap the secular “MERRY X-MAS” cake for homemade desserts instead. They called a press conference and invited all eight national TV channels and film crews, the three largest daily newspapers and several ladies’ magazines. For the three weeks leading up to Christmas, every channel and paper featured the wonderful variety of “authentic” Christmas cakes and breads. More importantly, the idea stuck.
As a result, the Japanese now host seminars each fall allowing Japanese bakers, amateurs and professionals to learn how to produce and market a variety of ethnic Christmas items. Today, more than 500,000 Christmas stollen cakes are sold annually in Japan and about 250,000 Panatones.
And yes, even more than 10 years later, Mrs. Mondale’s pumpkin raisin bread recipe remains a housewife favorite.
Editor’s Note: Larry Blagg is senior vice president of marketing for Fresno, Calif.-based California Raisin Marketing Board.