An Authentic Luau
It isn't just the food—it's how you make it and who you eat it with.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Visit our Dining page to read more reviews!
• Hy’s Steakhouse
Waikiki Park Heights Hotel
• Atlantis Seafood & Steak
Ala Moana Center
Reviewed in our May 2007 issue.
The takeout meals aren’t just plates. Everything comes packaged individually, first in its own cup or bag, then in a box.
Some patient volunteers have assembled 2,500 cake boxes, stamping them with the church name.
Everyone lines up around long tables. At the first station—this is my job for a while, not requiring much ability—you open the box and place a Styrofoam cup of poi inside. (Fifteen members of the Kihewa family came at 4 a.m., diluted the poi, and filled each container by hand.)
In addition to the poi—some of the mildest and best I’ve tasted—the box moves on to the next station, where it gets a cup of chicken long rice, scooped up fresh into a container, still hot from Uncle Aike’s crew.
Then a cup of kalua pig.
There are actually two assembly lines. In a back room, a table of ladies is mixing lomilomi salmon: the non-mushy tomatoes, green but not round onions, and a remarkable quantity of salted salmon. Others dish it into plastic containers using slotted spoons.
Another table is loading a smaller plastic cup with swordfish-limu poke and opihi.
Young girls bring the cups by the trayful into the main room. Both poke and lomi go into each box. Then a pineapple wedge in a plastic bag. On top goes a plate, patiently assembled by yet another team of ladies early that morning. The plate has a slice of baked sweet potato, dense haupia and a square of yellow cake that doesn’t look like much, but turns out rich and delicious.
It’s a lot of food for $15, especially since the church throws in a chilled can of Hawaiian Sun juice with each box.
When the boxes are full, runners, mainly 11- and 12-year-old boys, roll them on carts to Mel Spencer III in the back.
Spencer has inherited this job from his father. “My dad’s not even here today,” he laughs. “He used to drag me along when I was a kid and give me the worst weekends of my life.”
Now, Spencer insists, he’s got an easy job. He sells takeout tickets in advance, and then on luau day, he hands out takeout boxes.
Spencer’s supposed to pace the operation, so that when people drive up, there will be hot food. He’s worried that he’s taken some big orders. One customer ordered 67 boxes to feed everyone on a job site.
Unfortunately, the pickup for 67 boxes shows up just after someone who’s bought 20 boxes, and just before someone who’s ordered 40. “Wiped out,” he says.
To make matters worse, the opihi runs out, necessitating a run to Tamashiro Market next door.
Things slow down. Traffic backs up to Vineyard Boulevard and even back to the Palama Street off-ramp. It takes more than an hour to catch up. The Lakona family, in charge of feeding the workers, passes out dishes of bread pudding and ice cream to cheer up the workers.
Finally, by 5 p.m., the pickup is over. But not the day.
Upstairs, a group of volunteers has been arranging flowers and setting tables.
I run into one of my new friends, Lorna Matos. I remember her story: She came to this luau two years ago with friends. “I thought the people here were so wonderful, I joined the church,” she says.
Matos worked on the takeout line all day. Now she ties on a palaka apron to wait tables for the sit-down. “This isn’t work,” she insists. “This is relaxation.”
There’s a flurry in the church kitchen. The lomi salmon has run short, and with the Robot Coupe returned to its owner, there’s chopping to do by hand. Uncle Aike’s crew is making yet more chicken long rice.
The guests for the sit-down dinner arrive, colorful in aloha wear. They walk through a buffet line and then find a seat at one of the communal tables that stretch the length of the dining room.
At $25, the sit-down meal seems like a bargain—even before you realize it’s all you can eat. The waitresses are always there to refill your plate, hand you a new container of poi.
Some friends join me at the sit-down. “This is so cool,” says one, several times. “I wonder if it would taste as good if it wasn’t for all this.” She gestures to take in the welcoming atmosphere, the hall of people, the stage full of musicians and dancers from Leimomi Ho’s halau.
Whatever the reason, it’s great food. I set a personal record for consuming poi and kalua pig.
The crowd leaves. After cleanup, it’s time for church.
Kellie, who insists her brain is fried, gets up in front of the small congregation and says, “It’s been a good day.”
They sold out, people liked the food, but there were two things that were more important than that: tradition and fellowship.
Kahu Kamanu offered a prayer. He thanked the Lord not for the money, not even for helping them get through a long day. “Thank you,” he prayed, “for all the new people the luau has brought into our lives.”
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.