YAKIMA -- Tom Uchida remembers peeling onion after onion and chopping stalk after stalk of celery for the first sukiyaki dinner in 1961.
"Oh, that's a long time ago," the slight 82-year-old said with a boyish grin. "You're talking about our parents and our grandparents."
Hundreds of pounds of yam noodles, bamboo shoots and rice also had to be cooked for the around 500 visitors who filed into the Buddhist Church's gymnasium to feast on the Japanese cuisine made from his grandmother's recipe.
That was a half-century ago. The dish, a one-pot meal, is very popular in Japan, especially as a winter dish.
"You think about sukiyaki 50 years ago, not too many people here knew about sukiyaki -- you know -- Japanese cooking," Uchida said.
But what started out as a simple church fundraiser has blossomed into an annual event that draws people from as far away as the Tri-Cities and Seattle to this rural Lower Valley town of about 4,555 residents.
Today, the dinner attracts more than 1,500 visitors served by around 120 volunteers -- all to support the church that has shrunk from about 60 members in the beginning to 18 today.
Locals know how special the event is.
"It attracts people from throughout the entire state -- they have to serve people in shifts," said Mayor Jesse Farias. "It seems like it's been here my whole life."
And on Sunday, the church is expecting the usual big turnout. "It's going to be nice," Uchida said.
For church members, the annual dinner is much more than just a way to keep church doors open. It's a way of honoring the legacy of the Japanese pioneers of the Yakima Valley.
In the early 1900s, they helped put much of the land in the Lower Valley into farm production, digging some of the first irrigation canals.
As a Japanese community began to emerge, so did a Buddhist temple and neighboring gymnasium.
As construction finished on the temple and gym, war broke out with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Many Japanese pioneers, some U.S. citizens, were put into internment camps. Most from the Yakima Valley were sent to Heart Mountain, Wyo., where they were kept behind a fence with armed guards for about three years.
Uchida was just a small boy at the camp, where his younger brother, Yosh Uchida, now 67, was born. During that time, the Buddhist temple in Wapato sat idle.
After internment, only a few families of the more than 1,200 Japanese pioneers that once lived in the Yakima Valley returned.
When they returned, they found that one of their schools and a grocery store in Wapato had been burned, Tom Uchida recalled. "There was a lot of prejudices going on then," he said.
The temple's handmade altar was stored beneath the stage of the gymnasium for protection. Two townspeople, Dan McDonald and Esther Boyd, were credited with watching over the temple and gymnasium, Yosh Uchida said.
After coming home, Dave Sakamoto, 75, recalled staying with other families in the gymnasium for almost two months until his parents found a place to live.
"I have a personal obligation," he said of keeping the dinner alive.
Tom Uchida said transportation at that time was hard to come by. But a 1932 Packard of his father's still was in the field behind the scorched grocery store.
"Dad, he fixed the old Packard and got it running and that was our transportation," he said.
Although the temple had about 60 members, it was a struggle to keep the doors open. The same was true of the gym, built for basketball and other community events.
But in 1961, a Japanese women's auxiliary club had the idea to emulate what a Japanese community in Seattle was doing -- holding a sukiyaki dinner fundraiser, Uchida said.
"Like any other church, you want a fundraiser," Tom Uchida quipped.
The atmosphere will be festive. Japanese lanterns will hang from the gym's ceiling. A display of 1,001 folded paper cranes, a symbol of longevity in Japanese culture, will be featured on the stage.
Even though today only half the church's membership is of Japanese descent, Yosh Uchida said the culture is as strong as ever and respected in this majority Latino town.
"So all of the people, friends, regardless of nationality, like to see us succeed in Wapato," he said. "So it's become a really expected yearly event."
If you go
What: Sukiyaki Dinner Buddhist church fundraiser
Where: Wapato Buddhist Hall, 212 W. Second St., Wapato
When: Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Cost: $12 a plate
By the numbers
Onions: 610 pounds
Celery: 400 pounds
Bamboo shoots: 30 gallons
Yam noodles: 250 pounds flown in from Japan
Rice: 500 pounds
Cucumber salad: 12 kettles
Thinly sliced prime rib: 525 pounds
-- Yakima Herald-Republic