Searching for Āina in Hawaii

The Big Island of Hawaii is divided into two unequal halves: The wet eastern shore where we are staying in Hilo, with its jungle and multi-hued Hawaiian people, aqua palm-shaded coves and sea turtles, its cheap plate lunch and the rumble of old cars and waves on lava-shrouded cliffs. And the arid western shore full of resorts, sandy beaches, boutiques and haoles like us.

Choosing Hilo was a conscious choice. When we travel we come looking for local food, local people. We want to bend the barrier between us and the real people who live there. We are not interested in the seclusion of resort living where an airplane ticket and a door-to-door resort shuttle armor us against the heat and the humanity around us.

So while we are loving Hilo, one day we decide a white sand beach where Stu can play in the waves would be nice. And so we have come 70 miles across the island to Hapuna Beach in an old, faded, dirty Honda Civic rented from a local boy named Tony who surely knows his wrecks. We are standing under a shade tree with round shiny dark green leaves the size of lunch plates. Stu is holding a boogeyboard and I am standing gingerly on my good foot. The bad foot, still swollen and pushed carefully into a flip flop, is making a valiant comeback eleven weeks after surgery, and on this day is released for its first outing from the heavy black boot that has been my constant companion and boat anchor.

But there are no waves on Hapuna Beach today. I balance carefully on my good foot in the sand, and glance at Stu. He smiles, shrugs, and tosses the boogeyboard on the picnic table under the tree, and we walk out across the beach. For the afternoon, we read and walk and read and swim. Stu comes back from a swim, and reaches down to stroke my swollen foot resting on the edge of the picnic table, and then he sees something in the sand, and wiggles loose a piece of flotsam with his toe. It’s a teaspoon, dropped by some recent picnicker. He sets it on the bench, and wanders back to the sea.

The sandy teaspoon is upside down on the bench. Something about its shape is familiar to me, and as I reach to turn it over, I know what I will see: a few curlicues and a small flower stamped into the cheap stainless. The very same pattern on the flatware my parents bought with Green Stamps in California and that I used every day of my childhood. A few pieces even came with me when I left home and are still somewhere in our camping equipment in Oregon, 63 years after my parents handed those Green Stamps over to the gas station attendant and took home the service for eight, serving spoons and butter knife included.

The spoon, like so much else in Hawaii, is not from around these parts. It’s the imported flotsam, like this very spoon, which has been thwarting my Don Quixote-like search for the local and the real on this big, fecund island. Which, oddly enough, I’ve been thinking about a lot on this particular afternoon, sitting under the tree with the lunch plate leaves, reading MFK Fisher’s “Serve it Forth.” Fisher is traveling the centuries, looking to make sense of how and why we eat what we do in much the same way I want to understand the food of Hawaii, and why and how Hawaiians eat it.

But the forces which caused that fork to by laying in the sand of Hapuna Beach have other ideas.When we arrived at the Hilo condo, I opened a cupboard to find two boxes of Jello left by the previous renters. Not an abomination, exactly, but a curious affectation in the land of papaya, passion fruit, and macadamia nuts. Why did they buy Jello? And why didn’t they eat it? Did their default to the familiar succumb to Hawaii’s charms?

Bob: “Jane, let’s buy some Jello, really live it up on vacation.”

Jane: “To hell with making that Jello, Bob, let’s go look at the turtles and have another Mai Tai.”

Or maybe they visited the big Hilo Farmer’s market one morning and brought home a papaya, which made them forget entirely about the strawberry banana Jello in the cupboard.

It is hard to override our baser tastes, driven by convenience and habit. Our condo Jello eaters, the spoon in the sand, they’re why I am tilting somewhat unsuccessfully at this windmill, searching for local food, and the old ways of eating it. All 1.5 million Hawaiians and the eight to nine million tourists who visit here each year are consuming mostly imported food. Only about 20% of what Hawaiians eat is actually produced in the islands. In 2013, food imports here were almost $7 billion of Jello and other essentials, including $8 million in bread, pastry and cakes, $16 million in beer, $19 million in frozen beef, and $23 million in tuna. The number one fruit import? Oranges. And this is odd because nearly every neatly trimmed yard we pass is home to a tree that groans under a canopy of oranges. So many oranges that paper bags full of oranges are often left at park entrances for our pleasure.

As I sit thinking about the power of local food for local people, I watch the Hapuna Beach gardeners raking up the fallen leaves and the larger-than-life almond-like seeds that have fallen from the trees with the big green leaves. Could these be the Malabar chestnuts I’ve read about? After we return to Hilo, I read up on Hawaiian trees and discover I have spent the afternoon under a Sea Almond, and that its seeds are a prized nut in India. Here in Hawaii, where they import 80 percent of their food across thousands of miles of ocean, they are swept up and tossed away.

There are farmer’s markets here on the Big Island every day of the week. This is a positive sign, no? Farmers, coming together, selling local food. But I had been warned before we ever arrived that most of the food sold there was bought wholesale by the vendors from large produce suppliers, much of which is not even grown on this island. Or any of its brothers here on this chain of the loneliest islands, the farthest from other land mass of any islands … in the world. Some vendors offer a backyard papaya or long beans from their garden, but the rest of the items on their tables come right out of Dole boxes, sitting in plain sight, and is parceled up into convenient tourist-size bags, meant to go back into that tiny fridge in the resort hotel.

Yes, there is passion fruit, lychee and rombuton. And I am happy for them, and even for the common, familiar things. A banana grown here or a fresh pineapple is full of the flavor we never taste on the continent 2,500 miles away, after a long ocean voyage en route to mainland cold storage.

But I want more: tree tomatoes, egg fruit, ice cream beans, Malabar chestnuts, ohelo berries from atop the volcanoes. I ask about them, or about particular things I did not know or understand, and a veil comes down. Papaya is five for $2. What else do I need to know? A busy market is not the time or place for history and cooking lessons. I leave the market, a few somewhat familiar items in my bag, but an ache in my heart to know more, taste more, to be for a moment not a haole, a cracker, a gringo, a honky. But for just a few days, a part of the āina.

Āina. It’s what Hawaiians call the land, but it is more than that. It is more than the Italian notion of terroir, which is merely all the physical things … land, earth, soil, sun … that impart flavor to a particular wine. To Hawaiians, the land is alive in a very human sort of way: “… it can do things, want things, and know things. [Hawaiians] are the offspring of a union between the earth and sky, making the āina a direct relative,” writes Judy Rohrer in her book, Haoles in Hawaii.

All Hawaiians needed the āina provided, and then Captain Cook sailed up in 1778. Suddenly, āina was not enough. In less than 100 years, 95% of native Hawaiians had disappeared, ravaged by diseases and the white man’s ways. “This powerfully demonstrates” writes Rohrer, “how colonialism can be seen as a form of genocide in Hawaii.”

Now the islands are dependent on the mainland and foreign markets (mainly Indonesia and Thailand) for mattresses, cars, the oil to fire its electric generating plants. And yes, stainless steel flatware, oranges and Jello.

Maybe I want what it is impolite for a haole to desire. Or for a honky to want in New Orleans, a gringo to crave in Mexico. My own whiteness means I am forever looking in toward the only true culture most of my kind can experience, save for that which does not interest me: processed fast food and streamlined foods from immigrant populations, a taco on a pre-cooked hard shell that is about as far from authentic as the earth is from Pluto. I can never make rabbit as a Frenchman, or gumbo as a Cajun, or poke as a Hawaiian. And yet I want to go deep, make it part of my marrow. I who am a symbol of another kind to Hawaiians. I am the spoon, I am the Jello. I am the descendant of Captain Cook.

So I bash along against the tide. I arrive. I observe, I ask questions and teach myself. I paw through Hawaiian cookbooks in the Hilo bookstore looking for illumination, and set aside in a stack on the floor the books by celebrity Hawaiian chefs and the recipe collections by haoles much like myself. There is nothing else left on the shelf.

I come home from the Maku’u farmer’s market on Sunday with taro and pumpkin blossoms. I dice the unfamiliar pale purple taro and boil it until tender. Is this the way? I don’t know, but I know tubers, and this seems right. When the taro is fork-tender, I drain it, let it cool, mix it with Puna goat cheese, and stuff the mixture inside the pumpkin blossoms. I dredge them in flour and egg and flour again, and fry them, and serve them up on a salsa of peppers, avocado, papaya, shallots and cilantro. They are not Hawaiian, but they are very good, out on the lanai, near the turtles.

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