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How Local Are You? Your Potluck Dish Says A Lot About You

Or why a Jewish guy is eating Chinese food at his son’s bar mitzvah in Kāhala.


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Illustration: Kelsey Ige


Hawai‘i knows how to potluck—everywhere, all the time. If Honolulu were the site for selecting a pope, every cardinal would arrive at the sacred conclave carrying a cooler and a noodle dish. Even by these high standards, my son’s first Little League team were potluck champs. The players, mostly local kids, showed up with their families—moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas, aunties, an uncle who happened to be just 10 miles away so he thought he would drop over to watch. And potlucks happened not just after every game but after almost every practice. By the top of the fifth inning, the team mom had fired up the hibachi for kal bi, and, by the end of the game, the nearby picnic tables were covered with mounds of local food: kal bi, sushi, rice, musubi, chicken hekka, macaroni salad, five different noodle dishes, pipikaula, haupia and Redondo Hawaiian wieners so crimson you could use them as road flares. Each person brought enough food to feed everyone.


The day before the first potluck of the season, the team mom made the food assignments. “You folks bring the cutlery and plates,” she said to my wife, Joy, and me. “And don’t forget chopsticks.” So, while everyone else was cooking rice, marinating meat or mixing noodles, all I had to do was make a quick trip down aisle nine. We remained the cutlery people for a few weeks until the team mom said to us, “How about making some brownies?” Finally, near the end of the season, Joy and I moved all the way up to green salad.


It was a season-long Food Test for Haoles, and I recognized that our achievement was mostly a courtesy nod. Romaine lettuce, the taro plant of the Caucasian. Still, all season, Joy and I ate all of the local food and used chopsticks. The parents got to like and accept us. We liked and accepted them. It was enormous fun. One team together. You can’t imagine how good that made us feel.


Food tests are common in Hawai‘i. They are a quick and easy way to test a newcomer’s commitment to the place, your fit, and your willingness to learn and respect. Here, especially if you are a haole who grew up somewhere else, you are what you eat. You blend if your tastes blend. Like the place itself, food in Hawai‘i is a complex, diverse and often weird mixture—Chinese food with luncheon meat, sushi with Jell-O, macaroni salad with two scoops of rice, saimin with a Happy Meal. Fusion cuisine before fusion was cool. Because the place has been diverse for so long, there is a lot on which to be tested. “What, you eat Filipino food? Good, you.” And the ubiquitous, “Chopsticks or fork?”


Neal and Joy Milner, with their children, at left, in Boca Raton, Florida, joined by Joy’s parents, uncle, sister, brother-in-law and their children and a great-granddaughter, in 1997.
Photos: Courtesy of Neal Milner


Midwest Beginnings

A May 1974 snapshot of the Milner children: Greg, 5, and Joanna, 1.

Food tests did not exist in the 1950s Milwaukee neighborhood where I grew up, because there was nothing to test. Everyone ate the same. In theory, there were big differences between what Jews like my family ate and their Christian neighbors, but not many Jews kept kosher and, even if you did, your gentile neighbors’ foods were like yours. After all, our ancestors all came from the same parts of Europe, probably no more than a couple of hundred miles from one another. Pork or not, the meals all looked alike: a dark, amorphous mound of roasted or boiled meat, a bowl of potatoes and a plate of overcooked vegetables that looked like a steaming pile of compost. The Weidenhoffer’s braten was like my family’s brisket. Their wurst was our salami. The Prondzinski’s pirogi were our kreplach.


There was also nothing to test because my family never ate out, not at restaurants, not at the neighbors.’ For us, the farthest we would go was an uncle’s house to have the same food we got at home or to a picnic at Lake Park where we would eat the same foods out of picnic baskets—kosher salami sandwiches, brownies, a piece of fruit—that we brought for school lunch. Chinese food was the one tiny crack in this armor of uniformity and blandness. There were a few Chinese restaurants in Milwaukee. Most of them had slightly mysterious but not very Chinese names—La Joy, Oregon Inn, Silver Dragon. Some were close to our neighborhood. We never actually ate at any of them, but my mother added chop suey to her kitchen tool kit. Somehow, like a lot of Milwaukeeans at the time, she had absorbed something about Chinese cuisine, probably because pseudo-Chinese food became part of the post-war food consciousness. Keep the word Chinese but make the dish more American. La Choy, a Detroit company, made a fortune after World War II selling canned Chinese food that included bean sprouts and fried chow mein noodles with the slogan, “La Choy makes Chinese food swing American.”


My mother’s homemade chop suey was just Jewish cooking arranged in different ways. She made her chop suey in the same gigantic pot she used to make chicken soup. First, she cooked instant rice, then added a layer of celery, onions and green pepper, followed by golf-ball-size chunks of beef chuck that she had roasted in the oven for a half-day or so. Add La Choy bean sprouts, garnish with La Choy chow mein noodles, and there you have it: Jewish-American Chinese food that swings. This hearty concoction required a knife and fork. To use chopsticks, you would have needed Ang Lee’s imagination and Bruce Lee’s strength.


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Honolulu Magazine July 2020