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.
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?”
A May 1974 snapshot of the Milner children: Greg, 5, and Joanna, 1. Photo: Courtesy of Neal Milner
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.
An Eastern Education
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. Photo: Courtesy of Neal Milner
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.