I could talk about how Hawaii is so beautiful my first thought is always that it seems FAKE. I suppose that is what you get when you stick a New Yorker in a real tropical paradise. I could rhapsodize about the orchids and hibiscus that grow like weeds along the single road leading around the lush, mountainous north shore of Kuaui, the endless taro fields, ever-changing sky and the infinite expanse of brilliant blue Pacific ocean.
I could go on for days about the fruit, how I ate things I picked from trees (so what if it was an unripe guava I mistook for lilikoi, as well as something juicy and delicious like lychee, but not lychee). Or tell you that breakfast consists of rich papaya, pineapple and bananas with strong Kona coffee and fresh-squeezed tangelo juice. And I could cry over the hundreds of starfruit dangling from trees, the ripe ones just out of my reach. The miser in me, sick of the price-gouging at Dean and Deluca, could sing about the avocados that are so plentiful you can have a big one for fifty cents.
But really, all I want to talk about is PIG. Specifically kalua pig, which for Hawaiians means pig roasted in the imu, an underground oven they construct with little more than rocks, leaves, and some big shovels. Imu is something to be treasured, reserved for grand feasts where something special is being celebrated. Why? Because making real kalua pig ain’t easy.
Meleana and Will, my beautiful Hawaiian friends to whom I am forever indebted for deciding to attend college in Massachusetts and befriend a mainlander like me, were married recently. To celebrate, they threw a Hawaiian style party for the ages, an eight-hour feast of food, music, hula, family and friends. Ok, it was a lu’au (minus all the cheesy things Americanized luaus have come to represent).
The elements were perfect: a beautiful beachfront home in Hanalei Bay, Kauai, an impressive network of local Hawaiian family and friends who were eager to help, and a wide-eyed group of East Coasters from Mele’s college and Manhattan years to make the event even more of a cultural spectacle.
But back to the pig. Imu is a deceptively simple word for an incredible process, for while it only refers to the underground oven in which the pig will roast, the term encompasses the roasting of a pig so big it can feed 200 people, a roasting so complex it requires a team of fearless (and I might add well-built) Hawaiian men to do the job. Sure that sounds fairly sexist, but when it come to slitting the throat of a 150-pound snorting animal, I’ll leave it to my testosterone-fueled friends. Men are in charge of pig. The women are in charge of the lilikoi margaritas, which thankfully does not involve getting up at dawn. I am fine with this (and they were delicious).
Will’s nearest and dearest “boys” were given green tee-shirts emblazoned with the words IMU CREW and a sketch of a rather intimidating pig’s head. The afternoon before the wedding, the crew broke ground, shoveling out a giant hole in an otherwise pristine lawn. Will’s brother Andrew chopped wood with the aid of his friend Travis. More of Will’s friends showed up in a pickup truck, its bed filled with perfectly round, large stones. They amassed a pile of banana and ti leaves. The construction of the imu, the primitive oven that would slowly roast this pig to moist, flavorful perfection, was underway.
That night they visited a local farm, home to a particularly large pig that would serve as next evening’s main course. After the pig was slaughtered, cleaned and skinned (I choose to avoid the dirty details), it was transported to the wedding site under a bright moon. The day of the wedding, the crew arose before dawn to start cooking. The imu was warm (around 250 degrees), the big stones lining the bottom of the hole functioning like coals in a grill. They salted the pig and wrapped it in chicken wire and banana leaves. Just before 6AM, the pig was lowered into the imu, covered with another layer of banana and ti leaves and burlap, buried deep with an estimated cooking time of 12 hours. Job done for now, some went in search of good surf.
Fast forward to just after the ceremony, the crew got dirty again, removing a protective blue tarp, digging carefully, removing layers of leaves, steam rising from holes, and in one big heave, lifted a giant hulk of beautifully roasted pig from the Imu. It was literally dripping, the chicken wire and leaves holding it mostly intact. This was kalua pig. We ate it with poi, a somewhat odd Hawaiian staple made of taro (even the locals admit it’s an acquired taste) and white rice. The meat itself was incredible, unfathomably juicy and possessing a deeply smoky flavor.
For most, the experience of a lu’au is limited to umbrella-dotted, orange-hued cocktails, mystery meat slathered in sticky sweet sauce and pineapple chunks spiked with maraschino cherries, punctuated by images of girls in coconut tops and lava-spewing volcanoes. It’s fun and kitschy, a colorful anecdote to Pacific expansion in the 1950s and an exotic piece of American culinary history. Whatever real tradition and culture associated with the lu’au was buried under the foundation of Trader Vic’s.
Here, under a twilight sky filled with stars I don’t see in New York, Auntie Mihana singing traditional Hawaiian songs, sweet lilikoi margarita in hand and my plate heaped with kalua pig, I felt far away from anything American. Hawaiians are intensely protective of their traditions, which are much more closely related to their Pacific Ocean neighbors than anything remotely mainland-ish. Because of that, I left Hawaii in hog heaven.