Local Food: The Regional Food of Hawaii by Rachel Laudan

Do regional cuisines really exist in the United States? asked Sandra Oliver in one of the last issues of Food History News, the newsletter she started in 1989 and published for twenty years. Was it not the case that until the end of the nineteenth century everyone depended on a porridge of pounded corn, called mush or grits?  And that with the industrialization of food, they switched to bread, so that what’s often called a regional cuisine consists of little more than a specific ingredient or dish: lobster in Maine, beignets in Louisiana, or smoked whitefish around the Great Lakes? It’s a question that is still open.

Except in Hawaii, that is. Hawaii has a regional cuisine, called Local Food in the Islands.  Created between the 1960s and the 1980s, Local Food is the matrix from which teriyaki, Hawaiian sweet bread, and the poke bowl now trending on the mainland emerged. Even so, it’s largely invisible to the 9 million tourists who visit each year and unknown outside Hawaii.  Local Food was created by Locals—non-white inhabitants, often of mixed heritage, who had been born and raised in the Islands and who made up the majority of the Democratic Party that came to power when Hawaii became a state in 1959. Most of their ancestors had migrated to Hawaii sometime between the 1870s to the 1920s from south China, Japan, Okinawa, Korea, the Portuguese Azores in the Atlantic, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and elsewhere to work as indentured laborers on the sugar and pineapple plantations. Local Food is shared at political events, eaten at lunch trucks, served in the university cafeterias, and enjoyed at garage parties, and beach picnics.

Local Food was layered over other existing cuisines in the Islands. The first was Hawaiian cuisine created by the people from the south Pacific. As they paddled their outrigger canoes into the leeward shelter of the Islands around 400 AD after the two-thousand-mile voyage, their hearts must have lifted to see the clouds hovering over the mountains promising cool, fresh water. As they explored, though, the exhilaration perhaps turned to worry as they found little that was edible except fish, seaweed, a couple of seasonal berries high in the mountains, a fern with an edible root, and a number of species of flightless bird. Perhaps it was the latter, now all long gone, that sustained them while they established the dozen or so food plants, especially taro, they had carefully stowed on their canoes and while their pigs, dogs and chickens multiplied.  As it was, the Hawaiians grew to a flourishing society of tens of thousands of people sustained by cooked, pounded taro (poi) and fish flavored with seaweed.

So things went until 1778 when Captain Cook landed in Hawaii. He and others following him—missionaries, drifters, whalers, sugar planters, managers, and factors–introduced Anglo-American cuisine to the Islands, with its bread and beef. The intermarried elite of Hawaiian nobility and wealthy Anglo-Americans scrambled to find crops they could export to earn money settling by the end of the nineteenth century on sugar, soon joined by pineapple. To provide the hard labor, they scoured the world for indentured laborers.  Just as the Hawaiians and the Anglo-Americans had introduced the crops, techniques, and dishes to reproduce their own cuisine, so too did the Chinese, Japanese, Okinawans, Koreans, Portuguese and Filipinos. Taro paddies were converted to rice paddies, Japanese tuna boats went out over the reef, and the Portuguese built beehive-shaped bread ovens. Plantation stores, itinerant sellers, small farmers, mom and pop stores offered rice, fermented sauces, and a wide range of vegetables. By World War II, when many had left the plantations and moved to cities, small restaurants offered a wealth of (largely) Asian options.

Plate lunch Rachel Laudan

Then came Statehood. The former plantation workers, known by the then-dismissive term “Local” for people of color, voted for the Democratic Party and came to power, displacing the earlier political elite.  To demonstrate their cohesion, they sought out dishes that would appeal to all groups in the pot lucks that opened the legislative sessions, in the public lunches, and in the trucks that served plate lunch specials. Everyone enjoyed rice so it became the staple in the Islands. Two scoops of rice with macaroni salad, and a meat that might be teriyaki beef (Japanese) or beef curry (Hawaiian) or kal bi (Korean) or chicken shoyu (Chinese) made up the plate lunch. Favorite light meals were the manapua (Chinese steamed bun stuffed with pork) or the Spam musubi (Japanese rice with a nori—dried seaweed–wrap).  Nibbles might be dried octopus or one of the many, many kinds of crack seed (dried apricots or other fruit, salted and often with a liquorice flavoring). Portuguese sausage was popular for breakfast, sweet bread and malasadas (Portuguese donuts), andagi (Okinawan donuts) and mochi (Japanese pounded sweet rice) for sweet treats. Fruit punch and shave ice were favorite refreshers in the heat. With a beer, everyone enjoyed chunks of raw fish (poke) flavored with sea weed or soy. In 1976, Local Food was so entrenched in the Islands that the owner of the first McDonald’s had to defy company policy and modify the menu—now standard practice but then for the first time—to include saimin (Chinese-Japanese noodle soup), rice, Portuguese sausage, and fruit punch.

This Local Food served to unite formerly disenfranchised peoples in the Islands. It gave them an identity distinct both from the former ruling elite and from the tourists who brought dollars but were understandably uninterested in anything about Hawaii that went beyond tropical bounty and smiling native Hawaiians welcoming them with their alohas and luaus. Just like the pidgin (Hawaii Creole dialect) that Locals spoke, Local Food was a secret language that expressed the recent political, social and cultural history of the Islands. Local Food, then, was not the result of any local bounty for Hawaii had none. It was not biologically local, nor agriculturally local but culturally local, the upshot of the unique pattern of migrants to the Islands and the circumstances that had brought some of them to political power.

Now the children of Locals are leaving the Islands in search of better job opportunities and a lower cost of living. Wealthy retirees from the mainland and Asia are moving in for the balmy weather and relaxing life style. Local Food may well be gone as fast as it arrived.

Next week: Fast food and its effect on regional cuisines

It is a great honor for me to have Rachel Laudan write an article for this blog. Her most popular article is “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love Fast, Modern, Processed Food” (2001). She has written two prize-winning food histories, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (2013) and The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage (1996), Rachel is a popular speaker with food professionals as well as academic and general audiences. In a former career, Rachel was a recognized academic historian with a Ph.D from University College London. She specialized in the history of science and technology, holding appointments at American research universities and receiving grants from Fulbright, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Rachel grew up on dairy and wheat farm in England. She has seized the opportunity the academic life gave her to cook in England, France, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, as well as the United States. After fifteen years in Mexico, she and her husband now live in Austin, Texas. Rachel is the 2018 recipient of the Paradigm Award by the Breakthrough Institute. I highly recommend following her blog.


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