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 recipes, too, have been passed down from generation to generation. Aike Grace has been in charge of the chicken long rice for only two or three years, a job passed down from Uncle David Kaneao.
Like the pig, the long rice is a multi-day process: Cooking the chicken, deboning it, clarifying the broth and chilling it at just the right moment. On the day of the luau, the crew will cook batch after batch, with a wooden paddle in a five-gallon square pan, so there’s always a warm, fresh supply.
Aike offers me a test taste. It’s remarkable, with a nice tinge of ginger. “These noodles, I don’t like this kind, they are soaking too much of the broth,” he says.
“Yes, but they’re absorbing the flavors,” I say.
Aike shrugs. “This is the Kaumakapili way,” he says. “I like it soupier with less chicken and more ginger. But there’s a tradition here. Before I go farther, I get Uncle David to taste them. If he says they’re right, then they’re right.”
That’s how you have to do it, says Kellie. “If you are going to chair this luau, you need to know that Auntie So-And-So is this way and how Uncle So-And-So can be.”
The key is to change slowly. To try things and see if the elders approve.
“After all,” Kellie says, “that’s the whole point. It’s not the money. This luau used to raise all our operating funds for the year, but it doesn’t anymore. It’s about patience and understanding and learning to work together.”
When I come back six days later, I see how things proceed with patience and understanding, but get done anyway.
On this Friday before the luau, work is supposed to go on till 9 or 10 p.m. On Friday, everyone chops—limu for the poke, pineapple wedges, tomatoes for the lomi. (Of course, that’s not all that’s going on. Another crew of volunteers is using the kitchens at Kamehameha Schools to bake cakes and make haupia. Aike’s crew is precooking noodles for the long rice.)
When I arrive at 6 p.m., everyone seems relaxed. The chopping is done hours early.
Someone has loaned the crew a Robot Coupe CL52, a $2,500 commercial food processor. He was a friend and he insisted, so they borrowed it, doubting they’d use it. After all, a year or so earlier, some had brought a device that allowed you to dice a quarter tomato at a time. When whoever was manning the device got too tired to push hard, the tomatoes got mashed instead of cut. Bad.
But this time, a test batch proved to even the skeptical elders that the food processor worked. Since I’d come to see the crews work, I was disappointed. But one of my new aunties, Claudette, took my arm. “You’re going to eat with us, aren’t you?” she asked. She’d known me all of perhaps 10 minutes.
At my table, there’s buzz among the elders about the new machine. “It didn’t make the tomatoes mushy?” someone asks. “No, they’re perfect.” Nods of approval.
Around us, folks are getting the parish hall ready for the luau—plywood tables on sawhorses, carts of folding chairs pulled out from under the stage.
In the kitchen, Anna Lakalo, her daughter, Kea, and her granddaughter, Puu, make cornbread for tomorrow’s breakfast, then soup and sandwiches for tomorrow’s lunch. Nobody working will go hungry.
When I get back the next morning, luau day, there are plenty of people working. I lost count at about 100.
“People you never see except at the luau show up,” says Kellie. “People’s friends, friends of the church.”
Kaumakapili is not a rich church, but it has a lot of friends. It distributes food and clothing to the homeless in the neighborhood. Its parish hall is home to many organizations, including one of the largest weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the state. In return, 20 AA members show up to work at the luau.
Right before 10 a.m., a line of women walk in wearing Kaumakapili T-shirts and blue pants that say WCCC. They are inmates from the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua, here to do community service. All through the day, I will hear people talking about how hard these women work.
As anticipation begins to build, Kahu Richard Kamanu steps to the center of the room. He leads a prayer, noting that the church, and God’s love, are open to anyone, no matter what their life situation.
The value of the luau, he says, is summed up in the injunction, from the First Epistle of John, to love one another: Aloha kekahi i kekahi. That is the luau’s theme and its point.
It’s not about the food.
Except suddenly it is about the food, in the sense that it’s almost 10:30 a.m., and even though the takeout isn’t supposed to start until 11, cars are lining up. By 5 p.m., the group has to put out 2,500 meals.