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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An Eastern Education
The Milner family at daughter Joanna’s bat mitzvah at the Kāhala Hilton Hotel in December 1986.
Real Chinese food would be my bridge between the Midwest and Hawai‘i. Before Joy and I moved to Honolulu in 1972, we spent a year in San Francisco, where we discovered actual Chinese cooking, particularly Mandarin (no sweet and sour, some spice, foods wrapped in what looked like blintz dough) and dim sum (many mysterious choices; and an even more mysterious pricing system). I also got pretty good with chopsticks, even the classier, slippery faux-ivory kind.
Chinese food in Honolulu became my first encounter with local food, but at that point it wasn’t really a food test. That’s because the old-style Honolulu, mostly Cantonese, neighborhood Chinese restaurants did not care about you enough to test you. I was beneath contempt in their eyes, not because I was haole, but because I was a customer, and any customer was simply wasting the restaurant’s time. “What want?!” the waitress shouted as she hurled soy-sauce-stained menus in our direction, pulling a wrinkled order pad from her black polyester pants and a chewed pencil nub from the pocket of her red brocade top. One popular local Chinese restaurant even put a vending machine in the middle of the dining room so that the waitresses would not have to be bothered by drink orders. “Coke, you go there!” For ambiance, the kitchen help shouted: “Need more plates! Need more plates!” at the decibel level of a heavy-metal concert.
It did not take long for me to discover and appreciate a variety of local food. I even learned to call chopsticks by their Japanese name, hashi.
When my in-laws visited Hawai‘i from the Mainland, I was put in the position of team mom, but, if they failed the test, I would be the one in trouble. So I rigged the test in their favor.
A Chinese restaurant was the only place we could possibly entertain a bunch of older relatives when they came from the Mainland to visit, say for the week of my son’s bar mitzvah. Folks in Hawai‘i love Chinese banquet-style eating. It’s like a potluck you don’t have to cook, and yet you can still bring coolers. Graduation party? Great. Let’s go to Hee Hing. Just tell them we want the standard dinner for 10.
But no boilerplate dinner for 10 would work for my family’s special occasions. There were too many items on this standard menu that some people would not eat. Thank goodness for Yen King.
Yen King was different from most Chinese restaurants in Honolulu at that time. The place was newer. It served Mandarin-style food. The staff did not treat the customers like home invaders. But, most of all, the restaurant was special because of Howard Ko, its owner. Howard was a very accommodating man. More important than that, he had a graduate degree in agriculture, which was invaluable, because working with me, he needed all the food science he could bring to the table.
Howard and I tackled the arduous process of selecting the dishes like it was NFL draft day. Some examples:
No one over 65 will eat any dish that has those little red peppers, whatever you call them. Eating around them is not an option, even though these elders would say it’s not a problem, a well-meaning but bald-faced lie.
Fish is acceptable if it is cooked, cooked all the way down and served with all identifiable body parts removed. Also, no bones, because, God forbid, someone could choke.
All servers must be prepared at all times to answer the question, “What’s in it?” about everything from the water and napkins to the cashew chicken and fortune cookies.
Chopsticks, but not the slippery kind of chopsticks. Also forks.
Daughter Joanna with son Greg at Joanna’s graduation from Lewis & Clark College in Oregon with Joy Milner’s Uncle Oscar.
It’s been close to 40 years since my first Little League food test and 25 years since my family had one of those multigenerational Chinese dinners at Yen King, yet I am still taking food tests. Now, no team mom tests me. I test myself, because I still have doubts about whether I belong here.
When I eat Hawaiian food, it’s always with a sense of accomplishment, like a suburban liberal who sends his children to an inner-city school and wants to brag about how virtuous he is for doing so. “See, look, everyone, I ate the entire Hawaiian Plate—the squid lū‘au, the lau lau, everything, even the poi. All gone.”
I like to eat lunch at Loco Moco Drive In at a shopping center about a mile from my home. At the counter, I order vegetable stir-fry with tofu, brown rice and green salad. As often as I have ordered this meal, I still wonder what the counter help will think about my order. Tofu (belongs), no meat (outsider), rice (belongs), but brown not white (outsider plus 75 cents extra), greens instead of macaroni salad (far outsider).
The stir-fry comes in a Styrofoam container along with the cutlery. They always give me a fork. Why don’t they give me chopsticks? I don’t like to tell them in advance that I want chopsticks, because they might think I am trying too hard. Yet I would really like them to see me as a chopsticks user. I shouldn’t have to ask. Hey, my friend, I am not just some old haole tourist trying to experience local color before making the trip to Hanauma Bay. I was living here 20 years before you were born. It makes me sad that they don’t give me chopsticks, but it makes me even sadder that it makes me sad.
For me, food tests no longer get at the heart of the matter. My concern about lau lau and forks are just symptoms. The food tests are futile because, for me, life in Hawai‘i is no longer about fitting in, in that 1970s Little League way. My life is now about living with contradictions. I have always had contradictory feelings about living in Hawai‘i, and they have become more powerful the longer I live here. The things that make me attached to Hawai‘i have gotten stronger, but so have the things that make me feel so distant.
I think local people in Hawai‘i are chauvinistic when they say they can’t imagine anyone wanting to move back home to the Midwest, yet I would never move back to Milwaukee, even though Milwaukee fascinates me more than it ever did when I grew up there. I wear fewer aloha shirts than I used to, but I always make sure to take a fancy one on my trips to Milwaukee. I miss my children and granddaughter, who now live so far away, but I am proud my children developed the sense of independence and adventure that made it happen.
Wherever I lived after college, I always assumed I would get tired of that place and move on. Once I settled down in Honolulu, I could not imagine living anywhere else.
So, for me, an old guy whose son and daughter moved to the Mainland long ago, living in Hawai‘i is full of these contradictions between belonging and distance, but it’s these very tensions that make my life interesting. The tug between where I’m from and where I am keeps me alert and thoughtful—uncomfortable in a productive sort of way. I don’t want to spend my pau hana years being “comfortable” if comfort means losing that tension. That’s not comfort. That’s surrender, like taking Loco Moco’s fork without thinking about it.