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.

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