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An Authentic Luau

It isn't just the food—it's how you make it and who you eat it with.


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The poke at the Kaumakapili Church luau awaits its crown of opihi.

Photo: Monte Costa

Say you want to put on a luau. Not tourist food either—no teriyaki chicken thighs, no macaroni salad—but authentic Hawaiian food, real kalua pig, opihi. And say you want to feed 3,000 people.

Think you could pull it off? Using only volunteers? Making the meal inexpensive enough that almost anyone can afford it, while at the same time raising about $40,000 that you can then spend doing good works? Kaumakapili Church—only 175 members, many of them elderly—has been succeeding annually, for 37 years.

“We get a lot of help,” says Kellie Maunakea, co-chair of this year’s luau. “What we do isn’t just about the food. You need to see the process.”

That explains why I am at the corner of North King and Palama at 8:30 a.m. the Saturday before the luau. “The pigs are late,” says Maunakea.

Not all the pigs. Enough have arrived that when I walk down the stairs of Hale Kamika, the church’s parish hall, the smell of kalua pork knocks me nearly senseless with hunger. Pigs, thoroughly cooked, keep arriving with every pickup driven by the congregation’s young men, who heft them inside in long, heavy deboning pans.

Years ago, the pigs would have been imu’d right here, on the church property. But this parish hall was built on top of the church’s imu ground, so these days, the pigs are imu’d at Kamehameha Schools, which has an elaborate imu facility. Kaumakapili is the only outside group that gets to use it. There’s no institutional connection, just a historical one. Kaumakapili Church is 170 years old, only a few years younger than KawaiaHao. KawaiaHao was for the alii. Kaumakapili was a church for makaainana, the common people, built originally at the corner of Smith and Beretania. The land was donated by Abner Paki and Laura Konia, the parents of Bernice Pauahi Bishop. The church is Kamehameha Schools’ elder sibling.

Kahu Richard Kamanu surveys the scene.  As luau co-chair Kellie Maunakea notes, with this food, you taste more than the ingredients.  "It's the hearts and the laughter."

Photo: Monte Costa

The original church had a pili grass roof. King Kalakaua helped design the church that replaced it. Its twin-spired edifice was, until it burned in the Chinatown fire, a civic landmark and gathering place. After the fire, the church moved here; the sanctuary was finished in 1911.

There’s plenty of history here—and, at the moment, plenty of pig, more than a ton.

The pigs have spent 12 hours in the imu; the meat has fallen off the bone. Fifty or 60 volunteers go through it carefully, breaking it apart, removing every trace of banana leaf, skin, bone, large swatches of fat.

Hawaiian singer Palani Vaughan is working one of the pans. He quotes the rule: “If you wouldn’t eat it, take it out.”

The pork is now down to uniform pieces and goes into plastic bags to be frozen. It will be defrosted in stages during the day of the luau, so that there’s always hot kalua pig.

The core of Kaumakapili Church is Hawaiian families, like Kellie Maunakea’s. Her brothers Trevor and Buddy are on the board, as well as being mainstays of the pig operation. Her father, Henry, is president of the congregation.

“I’m trying to stay in the background,” laughs Henry. “My daughter’s in charge here.”

Kellie, a manager at Macy’s, is 35. Her friend and co-chair, Maile Stender, is equally young.

“A lot of the older people are getting too old for this,” says Henry. “We need to bring in the younger ones.”

It’s an operation that runs on tradition, and it’s going through a generational change. That’s often a problem.

Part of the problem is that the information on how things are done is locked in people’s heads. “I’ve been trying to organize things, get things written down,” says Kellie.
You have to know, for instance, that you need to start six or seven months early, getting permits, ordering hard-to-find items, like 10 gallons of opihi.


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Honolulu Magazine April 2018
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