I stopped Howie Mandel in his tracks.
Read about what happened here, in an article I wrote about kalo (a.k.a. taro) and poi. This article, for the Hawaiian Airlines in-flight magazine Hana Hou, earned an “Excellence in Journalism” award for feature writing/long form, from the Society of Professional Journalists.
by Leslie Lang
A few years ago, I did a newspaper interview with the comedian Howie Mandel, who was coming out to perform in the Islands, and he kept cracking canned jokes about poi — the traditional Hawaiian staple made from pounding the root of the taro plant into a starchy, nutritious paste. His seemingly endless stream of one-liners stopped only when I mentioned that my husband grows taro and we make our own poi. He was taken aback. “You mean you really eat that stuff?” he asked, sounding confused. “You like it?” The idea, apparently, had never occurred to him.
Mandel’s reaction is fairly typical of newcomers who encounter poi for the first time at a tourist lü‘au, and frequently compare it, unfavorably, to “wallpaper paste.” As far back as the 1850s, Mormon missionary George Q. Cannon had this to say about his first poi experience:
“Before leaving Lahaina, I had tasted a teaspoon of ‘poi,’ but the smell of it and the calabash in which it was contained were so much like that of a book-binder’s old, sour paste-pot, that when I put it to my mouth, I gagged at it and would have vomited had I swallowed it.”
Proving the conventional wisdom that poi is an “acquired taste,” however, Cannon’s attitude changed dramatically after he realized that if he didn’t learn to eat it, the people preparing his meals would constantly have to cook separate food for him. “This would make me burdensome to them, and might interfere with my success,” he wrote. “I therefore determined to live on their food, and, that I might do so, I asked the Lord to make it sweet to me.
“My prayer was heard and answered; the next time I tasted it, I ate a bowl full and I positively liked it. It was my food, whenever I could get it, from that time as long as I remained on the islands. … It was sweeter to me than any food I have ever eaten.”
It might perhaps surprise wise-cracking malihini like Howie Mandel to learn that the plant from which poi is made, taro — or kalo in Hawaiian — is not only relished by the Islands’ kanaka maoli (native people), but also regarded as a divine ancestor. According to the sacred Hawaiian creation chant the Kumulipo, the sky father Wakea and earth mother Papa had a stillborn son named Haloa-naka, who was buried, and from his body grew the first kalo plant, which was also called Haloa (“everlasting breath”). Wakea and Papa’s second son, also called Haloa, was the first human being, elder brother of the Hawaiian people. Hawaiians ever since have been nourished by their sacred ancestor who died to become the kalo plant.
Taro is a perennial herb that takes around nine to twelve months to mature. The plant is primarily grown in wetland conditions, and the traditional Hawaiian method of cultivation involves ingeniously designed, water-filled terraces called lo‘i, surrounded by walls of earth reinforced with stones, and irrigated by streams passing through the terraces. Along the banks of the lo‘i, other useful crops such as bananas, sugarcane, ti and wauke for making kapa cloth were planted, and edible fish were raised in the water along with the taro. In areas where there was rich soil and enough rainfall, Hawaiians also planted taro in dry plots.
Every part of the plant can be eaten, though it must be thoroughly cooked first to break down oxalate crystals that otherwise sting the mouth and throat. The long, heart-shaped leaves are cooked as greens, similar to spinach. The stem can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable. And the potato-like corm is baked, boiled or steamed and eaten sliced, or pounded with water to make poi, or sometimes fried into taro chips. Today, one can find taro used in breads, bagels, pancakes, biscotti and lavosh, among other foods. You can buy “poi in a tube,” flavored with banana. There is even poi ice cream.
In generations past, the pounding of poi was a regular part of life’s rhythm. My grandmother often told stories of my great-great-great grandfather, Tutu Nalimu, who was born in 1835 and even into his eighties regularly pounded kalo that he grew himself on family land along the Big Island’s fertile Hamakua coast, where I still live. She described the scene to me so many times I sometimes have to remind myself that it was her memory, not mine: The elderly, blind man with a thick shock of white hair, sitting on a lauhala mat on the floor, a cloth tied around his forehead to catch the sweat, swinging a stone poi pounder rhythmically onto the cooked kalo on the wooden poi board in front of him.
These days, many Hawaiians have gotten away from eating traditional foods, since farming and hand-pounding poi don’t fit easily into 21st-century lifestyles and work schedules. Yet there’s still a demand for taro, and on important family occasions it’s still common protocol to throw a backyard lü‘au with all the familiar foods. At the dawn of the new millennium, farmers in Hawai‘i had some 470 acres in taro production, and sold $3.7 million worth of their produce, a record high. The price of taro grown for poi was also at a record high: an average of 53 cents per pound.
At the end of a rough gravel road in Hilo, an old brown building houses the production headquarters of Pa‘i‘ai Poi Systems. Inside, on Tuesdays and Fridays, workers are all business. At 3 a.m. they start peeling taro that was cooked the night before. When they’re done, the taro is run twice through a commercial meat grinder to make poi, then packaged and labeled. By about 9 a.m., the whole operation is done, and the bags of poi head for the airport, bound for supermarket shelves in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Las Vegas, where there are substantial populations of expatriate Hawaiians.
Young, sincere, and articulate, Kalae Ah Chin, who runs the poi factory along with his wife Keli‘ikanoe, sports a shaved head, tattoos and a T-shirt that reads Loa‘a Ka Poi? (“Got Poi?”). The couple also owns Ka‘upena ‘Ono Hawaiian Foods, the original hole-in-the-wall take-out place in Hilo (with another opening soon in Kona), where a sign in the front windows boasts in Pidgin: “Poi – We Always Get.”
Ah Chin says his vision is to get poi back on the tables and into families’ diets. “If you eat poi the traditional way, in a communal bowl,” he says, “it forces everyone to move from the living room and the TV back to the table, where there’s lots of sharing. We wanted to bring families back to the table.”
Talking about taro is not at all like talking about other crops — all business and market prices — because taro is also about culture. “People don’t respect poi like they used to,” says Mahina Gronquist, a Hawaiian-language immersion school employee who was raised in the old ways by her grandmother. “There was a whole protocol,” she says. “To kahi (scrape the poi off the sides of) the bowl; and when you’re eating poi, you cannot take from the side of the bowl, you have to take it from the middle.”
Traditionally, poi was referred to as “one finger,” “two finger,” or “three finger,” according to how thick it was. The thickest poi could be swooped up to eat with one finger; the thinnest needed three. Taro used to be preserved by pounding until it reached the stage called pa‘i‘ai, before much water was added. “Pa‘i‘ai was when the taro was more like a potato than a poi — thick, thick, thick,” says Gronquist. “That’s what our navigators would take on their long canoe voyages because it kept, so they had nutritious and healthy food that would last.” Indeed, taro itself is one of the Islands’ “canoe plants” — the vital crops that Polynesian wayfarers painstakingly carried with them across countless of miles of ocean when they settled in Hawai‘i more than a thousand years ago.
Today, kalo remains a potent symbol of the Hawaiian culture, and, increasingly, educational groups have been using taro cultivation as a means to help Hawaiian young people literally get back to their roots.
Among these is Nawahiokalaniopu‘u School in the rural Big Island town of Kea‘au, which has been around since 1994 as a Hawaiian-language immersion high school, and this year added lower grades for the first time. It’s an incredible campus, where everything is recycled or reused and the lessons are practical. Students learn about raising fish in the school’s aquaculture program, and they tend pigs, chickens, rabbits for food, all of whose waste is captured and used to make soil.
The cultural history, planting, tending and preparing kalo is only one lesson at Nawahiokalaniopu‘u, says groundskeeper Jimmy Nani‘ole, but it’s an important one. “Most of us today live detached from our bodies,” he says. “We don’t give our bodies what they need; we give them what we want, and the result of that is that people are getting overweight, they’ve got no more energy. What we do with kalo and sweet potato (another Hawaiian staple) is to bring children to the awareness that what you eat is who you are. Just like you cannot have good kalo if you don’t have good soil, you cannot have a good body if you don’t have good nutrition.”
Another place where the culture of kalo is being taught is the nonprofit, 97-acre Ka‘ala Farm, located deep in O‘ahu’s Wai‘anae Valley, which is loud with birdsong and removed from modern development. In old times, the valley was the area’s “poi bowl,” or breadbasket, where the kalo for the whole leeward coast was grown.
Ka‘ala Farm got its start in the 1970s, when a group of “alienated youth” from the Wai‘anae Rap Center, a federally funded community organization, hiked the uplands of the valley and stumbled onto ancient stone terraces. They didn’t immediately recognize them as lo‘i — wetland taro fields — but Eric Enos began investigating further. He was on the staff at the Rap Center then, “though I was probably a little alienated, too,” he laughs. Now he’s director of what has become the Ka‘ala Farm and Cultural Learning Center, where some of the abandoned lo‘i have been restored and replanted. In the early days, Enos says, “We had no idea about growing taro, so we had to learn about it from the University of Hawai‘i’s Lyon Arboretum. They were so overjoyed, because here were Hawaiians interested in taro, which at that time was an unusual thing. They had tears in their eyes.”
Today, three to four thousand students visit Ka‘ala Farm each year to learn about Hawaiian culture by planting kalo and making poi, as well as learning about making kapa cloth and listening to kupuna (elders). Most love getting into the mud to work with the kalo, their bare feet sticking in the slurpy muck as they work. Students learn that kalo was used for offerings, food, as bait for fishing and even as medicine.
Ka‘ala Farm, which is not open to the public, has a Hawaiian Studies program through which high school students can spend one day a week mapping cultural sites and working on stream studies with the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Another program helps individuals from a Wai‘anae substance-abuse program learn life skills through working in the lo‘i.
One cannot talk about growing taro without talking about water rights, an issue that has posed serious challenges for the farm, and for contemporary taro growers in general. Over the last century, large amounts of Hawai‘i’s surface water has been diverted away from natural streams and traditional taro areas to support sugar plantations and other modern commercial uses. The effect, Enos says, has been to contribute to “the whole breakdown of Hawaiians’ connection to the land and fishing and everything else.”
“The valley got dried out to make a town,” says Butch DeTroye, Ka‘ala Farm’s facilities manager. “But we believe it’s possible to put water the back, and share it with the forests, too.” Enos says he went through years of bureaucratic struggles to bring water from a diversion ditch down to the valley, where it used to run. “We still don’t have enough water,” he says. “But I think we’re closer to the driver’s seat. Before, we weren’t even in the bus.”
Here at my home on Big Island, where rainfall is abundant, my great-great-great grandfather’s kalo has continued to grow, even during decades when no one was tending it. A few years ago, I came across a bundle of old letters my grandmother had written to her own mother in 1940, including one referring to taro, and to my grandfather wanting to learn to pound poi:
“… We eat a lot of taro now, and also make our own poi with the meat grinder. Have to strain it, though. In a few days we’re going to make some more poi, and Don wants to pound it so he’ll know how. He says if Tutu could pound poi at 80, he (Don) should be able to do it at 29. Instead of improving with the times and using modern, labor saving devices, we’re going backwards.”
Now, more than sixty years later, my own husband — himself from a long genealogy of taro farmers in Waipi‘o Valley — grows taro where my Tutu Nalimu did. We make our own poi using a commercial Champion-brand juicer — a machine now favored for that purpose by many families in Hawai‘i. My favorite way to eat poi is fresh, when it has an almost nutty taste. My husband likes it better when it’s a couple of days old and has soured a bit, in the true Hawaiian style. No doubt, Tutu Nalimu would approve more of my husband’s taste than mine.
Some of the taro plants we grow are actual descendants of Tutu Nalimu’s kalo, living symbols of how the process helps me feel connected to my Hawaiian ancestors stretching all the way back to Haloa at the dawn of time.
Poi entrepreneur Kalae Ah Chin encourages more families to grow their own kalo and get “poi machines” like ours. “I wouldn’t say it’s better, or even just as good as the old-fashioned way — the quality family time that goes into sitting around watching Tutu pound the kalo,” he says. “But in light of the fast-paced, Western world we live in, it’s a good way to get the family back together, eating at one bowl, and getting healthy stuff back into their diet.”