Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lu'au on the Island

I spent Sunday on the island, helping to prepare kalua pig for a lu'au.

The name of the island starts with an "S." Sorry, there's no "S" in the Hawaiian language, so where could this island be? Sauvie Island, in the middle of the Willamette River just north of the St. Johns Bridge in Portland, Oregon.

It was the annual summer picnic for Portland Culinary Alliance, for which I serve as president. When I learned that one of our member chefs, Mike Downing of Quimby's Restaurant in Newport (best clam chowder on the Oregon coast, if you ask me), used to be a lu'au chef on the island of Kaua'i, where he grew up, I began to think that this year's picnic would be more than just a potluck.

Mike was willing and eager. The next task on the list was to find a great location. Enter Don and Sandra Kruger, of Kruger's Farm Market on Sauvie Island, and we were all set.

On Saturday night, my daughter, Meriwether, and I packed a couple of shovels into the car and drove out to Kruger's. Digging the pit according to Mike's specifications (4' x 6' x 1-1/2') took us about an hour and a half. The sun had just set when we called it quits.

My other chore was to find the requisite banana and ti leaves. I found them at Uwajimaya, of course. But they were not cheap. I think Mike was used to picking them off a tree. I also lined up the wood delivery. I called a woman who'd advertised on Craig's List and when she called me back she said she was visiting her mother in Newport and was right next to Quimby's. So she personally arranged with Mike the type of wood (alder) and the quantity (1/3 cord).

On Sunday morning, Mike called me at 7:45 to say he was at the farm, after driving since 4 a.m. from Newport. Thirty minutes later, the wood lady called to say she was at the farm to deliver the wood. I showed up at 8:30, to help prepare everything before PCA members and guests began arriving at 3:30 p.m.

Mike's assistant, Tom, was already crouched in the pit, trying to light a teepee of kindling, with the help of some newspaper. The alder wood was stacked nearby. In time, Tom had every piece of wood in the pit, and the fire was roaring. Once the fire began to die down to coals, Tom put a layer of lava rock atop the wood.

Then it was time to prepare the pig. Our pig was about 80 pounds, nestled in a large cooler full of ice. Mike set it on a table and before he began I thought it was only fitting to sing an oli, or chant, to honor the pig. The only oli I know is the one we sing before we start hula class every week, but I figured it was better than nothing.

Mike sprinkled Hawaiian seasoning salt inside and outside the pig. Then he asked Tom to pick up a few of the smaller hot stones to put in the cavity of the pig, as well as in the armpits and groin, just to make sure it cooked through. The pig was laid on a bed of banana leaves and ti leaves, that in turn was laid atop a length of chicken wire. The leaves and then the wire were wrapped around the pig. Mike made similar packages of taro root, sweet potatoes and two turkeys, all wrapped in leaves and chicken wire.

The pig and the other packages of food were set atop banana leaves and corn stalks laid over the hot coals. Then we lay wet burlap over that and then a couple of tarps on top of that. Finally, we each grabbed a shovel and covered the pit with the dirt Meriwether and I had dug up the night before.

It was noon by the time we finished burying the food in the underground imu, oven. Mike and his assistants, Tom and Michael, should have taken a nap under the large oak tree that marked our picnic spot. But they kept going, getting other lu'au foods ready, such as lomi lomi salmon, ahi poke and, of course, macaroni salad.

We were just setting up the tables when the first guests arrived. As more people arrived, they drifted down the grassy hill toward the covered pig pit. At 4:30, Mike said he was ready to make the Big Reveal. He crossed himself -- privately he worried that we'd be having pork sashimi -- and began to shovel dirt off the tarps. Several men grabbed shovels and uncovered the tarp. It was pulled back to reveal . . . another tarp! That was pulled back to reveal a layer of burlap, then lots of banana leaves and corn stalks. Then Mike and Tom each grabbed an end of the bundle that contained our pig and brought it to the prep table.

The pig was perfectly cooked. It was, as the Hawaiians say, "ono." Delicious. The meat easily came off the bones and was piled high in a container that was moved to the group of tables that held our potluck feast.

There was well deserved applause for Mike and his helpers. As the party died down, they loaded up their SUV and began their 3-hour return trip to Newport. The lu'au had come to an end.

It wasn't Hawaii and we were under an oak tree, rather than palm trees. But we were on an island and the food was ono. All in all, a perfect day.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dem Bones

Nâ iwi kûpuna was the topic of my Fun Fact for this week's hula class. Literally, it means the bones of ancestors. I'd been curious about the significance of bones since sharing with my class what I'd learned about the death of Captain Cook, who met his end on the Big Island in 1799 after answering the islanders' hospitality with hostility. Not the best of manners for an Englishman, especially when his life was at stake, and all over some pilfered nails.

Anyway, when I told what happened to him -- he got roasted, after being killed in a skirmish -- one of my hula sisters asked, "Did they eat him?"

In all my reading on Hawaiian matters, I've never come across any anecdotes about cannibalism. In fact, from what I've learned, after death the flesh on a body was of little interest. It was the bones that held all significance. The traditional belief was that a person's bones were the repository for mana, spiritual power. The greater the chief, the greater the mana, and hence, the greater the importance of the bones.

In the case of a great chief, which is how the Hawaiians viewed Captain Cook, it was important to preserve the mana by taking care of his bones shortly after death. His body was roasted, which made it easier to remove the flesh, and once the bones were stripped they were distributed among important or significant people. The meat from the bones was deposited into the sea. It was usual that the bones of a chief were buried at a secret place, sometimes in a cave or lava tube. That way, the chief's enemies wouldn't be able to benefit from the mana still residing in the bones. The mana was meant to reside in the 'âina, the land, and be received by subsequent generations in the family.

The thigh bones were thought to be particularly powerful. And now I understand why the Hawaiians delivered Captain Cook's thigh to his horrified crew. Surely the Hawaiians thought they were doing the crew a great honor by bestowing the mana-ful thigh upon Cook's ohana, family of sailors. And surely the sailors thought the Hawaiians were performing a grisly and barbaric act.

But the topic of bones has modern significance in Hawai'i. Probably the most significant occurrence was in 1988 when Hawaiians managed to stop construction of the Ritz Carlton on Maui after the ancient bones of about 1,100 people were dug up during construction. This sort of thing had happened time and time again during earlier major construction projects on other islands, but the protests had little effect. However, in the Ritz Carlton case, the hotel heeded the protests and ended up building far from the beach where the burial site was. The site, pictured above and to the right, is once again sacred ground.

Today there are Burial Councils on each island, to make sure any ancient bones disturbed during construction are returned to the earth where they can continue to spread their mana.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Aloha Tower

My hula class has been dancing to a fun tune called "Aloha Tower," as sung by the Brothers Cazimero. With our hand and arm movements and by making 180-degree turns, we tell the story of the tower, which has a huge clock on each of its four sides and at one time performed duty as a lighthouse.

Aloha Tower opened on Sept. 11, 1926 as sort of the Statue of Liberty of Honolulu, because it was the landmark that cruise ship passengers saw as they arrived. Locals referred to the day that cruise ships arrived as Boat Day and it was a festive occasion. The Royal Hawaiian Band Played, hula dancers danced and there were fragrant leis for all the newcomers. Colorful streamers rained down on the ship and from the decks passengers tossed coins into the water to watch the native boys dive for money.

At 10 stories high, Aloha Tower was the tallest structure in all of the Hawaiian Islands. It held that claim to fame for about 40 years. You can still take the elevator to the 10th floor and step out on to the observation deck, which sits above the four clocks. Each clock weighs 7 tons. Made in Boston, the clocks were among the largest in the United States.

In the early days the Aloha Tower also served as a lighthouse. Its beam was visible 16 miles out to sea.

By the 1960s there were taller buildings in Honolulu and fewer cruise ships, as more travelers chose air travel. Just for fun, here's a clip from the 1939 film, "Honolulu," showing Gracie Allen and Eleanor Powell anticipating fun in Honolulu while on their cruise to Hawaii.