Howie Mandel, My Great-Great-Great Grandfather & Hawaii’s Poi

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.

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Kalo Culture

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.

Leslie Lang, poi, Hawaii, freelance writer
Unidentified Hawaiian men pounding poi, c. 1890.

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.”

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Remembering & Being Remembered

sandStefani Twyford is a video biographer in Houston, and she is also a wonderful writer and thinker. I just rediscovered her blog post about an African proverb, and it haunts me a little bit:

…The proverb recognizes two spirits. “Sasha are spirits known by someone still alive, while Zamani are spirits not known by someone currently alive.” According to James Loewen in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: “The recently departed whose time overlapped with people still here are the Sasha, the living dead. They are not wholly dead, for they live on in the memories of the living … when the last person knowing an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the Sasha for the Zamani, the dead.”

Walsh’s use of the proverb was in illustrating the power of oral and personal history. As a Personal Historian, I spend a lot of time educating people on the power and value of leaving your story for future generations. As long as people are alive and can pass your stories on to future generations, you will retain some degree of immortality. But like the game Telephone, each iteration of the story becomes less and less reliable and more anecdotal until what is left after a few generations is, if you are lucky, merely a name on a genealogical chart and some mention of characteristics… Read the rest

“When the last person knowing an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the Sasha for the Zamani, the dead.” Wow. It’s a powerful way of thinking. And it does make you think about keeping track of your family stories. Ask about them, and then write them down!

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Glued To The Screen

p8125460Here is a great reminder of just one of the reasons we should take the time to document, in one way or another, our personal stories – and, especially, those of our elder family members.

It’s personal historian Stanley Dalnekoff describing the first time his client’s family watched the two-hour audiovisual personal history he created about the grandfather:

The first viewing of the production at his home was in front of his wife, children, and two of his grandchildren. The most interesting reaction was that of his grandchildren who sat fascinated. They had heard some of his tales over the years but for the first time they were able to get a true picture of just what an incredibly resilient and fascinating person their grandfather is. They also received a lesson on how one can survive in the most difficult circumstances and indeed find the strength to thrive. Indeed this is the legacy he is handing down to future generations of his family. They, in turn, now have a physical record  to hand down to their offspring. Read the rest

Our histories are so easily lost track of, and what a shame that is every time it happens.

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Disneyland

Every Spring my three girlfriends and I meet in southern California with our seven little kids and take them all to Disneyland.

Dumbo ride at Disneyland

That’s where my daughter and I are right now. We spent Wednesday at Disneyland, and then on Thursday we all trooped off, drove the two cars onto a small, 3-car ferry to Balboa Island, and spent an afternoon on the beach. Then back to Disney on Friday, where we spent the day at the newer Disney attraction, California Adventure, which is built on the site of Disneyland’s former parking lot.

In between all that, we all stayed at my friend’s house in Garden Grove. She lives, literally, a block away from Disneyland. It’s awfully handy.

Not only does she invite the 11 of us to stay, and feed us, but she also has fancy “water features” in her back yard to rival the finest resort. Two connected, rock-lined jacuzzis, complete with waterfalls and lights that change colors — and on our last morning, her husband filled them with bubbles and delighted the kids. Right before he started a fire in the nearby fire pit and roasted everybody some marshmallows. At noon.

I sat back one day while we were there, watching them and thinking about how they are building childhood memories.

When they are older, they are going to say, “When we were kids we would meet our friends and go to Disneyland every year. And we would go to Auntie Jodie’s and Uncle Fred’s and swim in their jacuzzis and write on their bricks with fat sidewalk chalk and eat pizza.”

I thought of that because at one point we adults all talked about what we used to do like that when we ourselves were kids. Those memorable vacations our parents took us on. The places we went back to again and again — like Disneyland, and the beach. The adults who always had coloring books and sand buckets and shovels for us.

Here are the Disneyland highlights: My daughter’s first roller coaster ride. It was the kid roller coaster in Toon Town, and she loved it beyond words. At California Adventure, which I’d never been to before, we went on the big Mickey Mouse ferris wheel and sat in one of the cars that swings around wildly on a curved track as the ferris wheel turns. We both loved that.

California Adventure also has “Soarin’ Over California,” which is about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. They seat you in these fancy seats, and then lift the rows of seats up into the air so everyone is dangling before a huuuuge screen. Then the IMAX-like camera swoops through the air above different parts of California, and when you soar above the tops of pine trees, you actually smell pine, and when you swoop through the orange trees, you smell orange. You soar down to the ocean at one point and I was hoping they would even mist our toes, but no.

I really loved that attraction and would have gone back to see it a second time that same day if I weren’t being a part of a traveling freak show at the time (it’s a little chaotic to take seven young kids to Disneyland. To say the least).

We’re staying with my mom now and getting in family visits, too, and last night we ate in an English pub for my mom’s birthday and had delicious food. Not a lot of English pubs where I live on the Big Island! I had bangers and mash and loved every bite.

We have eaten so much good food. Visiting family and friends always ends up about celebrating being together with food, doesn’t it, and that’s part of the fun about being on vacation. This morning we went out for a great breakfast and I had country biscuits and sausage and gravy, with fried potatoes. Delicious, but it’s definitely time to lighten up a bit on the food. If I ate like this all the time it would be a problem.

It’s been a fun, rejuvenating respite from a very busy life. Tomorrow we head home again, and get back to our real world. We will definitely re-enter our world of early alarm clocks and short deadlines and other realities with a new spring in our step.

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“This I Believe” on the Importance of Preserving Family Stories

I mentioned that I’ve become a member of the Association of Personal Historians, and I just listened to an interesting “This I Believe” audio story by Stefani Twyford, one of its members, on Houston Public Radio. She talks about family stories and working as a personal historian. From her essay:

Each time I coax a story out of a client, I am excited at the richness of each person’s experience. When the son or daughter of a subject says, “I’ve never heard that! How did you get that story out of her?” I glow inside and feel that I have worked the magic that is my job. I rejoice when extended families get together to watch the video biographies I’ve created for them. And when I hear how many boxes of tissues were needed while viewing the video, a part of me gets emotional, even though it isn’t my family or my story.

It’s an honor and a privilege to help people tell their stories and put it down on a medium that will last. I know that when a great-grandchild asks, “Who was my great-grandfather?” there will be not only a photo and a story, but the child will hear his great grandfather’s voice, see his mannerisms, and hear those stories first-hand.

Listen to it here.

She really captures the magic of capturing people’s stories and preserving them for future generations.

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Freelance Writing & Kukui Nut Trees

For lunch today, I had a picnic with my husband and little girl in the shade of our big old kukui nut tree. We brought along my daughter’s Bob (learning to read) books, and decided we will call it “The Reading Tree” and sit there sometimes to practice reading. She loved that.

After we ate and read and played some little kid horseshoes, I lay back on the green- and blue-striped picnic blanket and watched a white, cottony cloud barrel across the perfect blue sky. After awhile, my daughter and husband wandered off and I actually napped briefly. When I woke up, it was to the feeling of warm sun on my face when the kukui leaves momentarily parted. It was excellent.

It was a work day.

Oh, the freelance life is definitely not all sitting around in pajamas and watching Oprah, let me tell you. 

If you’re good at what you do, and busy, it’s really an awful lot of work. I can remember, years ago when I started freelancing, being surprised at how hard I was working. (Maybe I had been expecting pajamas and Oprah.)

It is, of course, a real business with real work that needs to get done, well and on time. In addition to the interviewing, writing and revising, there’s always marketing that needs to be done, to keep the work coming in, and then invoicing and estimated taxes and lot of other paperwork, and keeping up with supplies, because nobody’s filling the supply cabinet but you. And a whole lot more.

Generally I keep regular work hours, which is what works best for me. I don’t sleep in on a work day (unless I’m sick, and then the flexibility is lovely), and I don’t chat on the phone during work hours. There is work to be done.

Once in awhile my regular work hours just aren’t enough, and there have certainly been times when I’ve worked into the wee hours, or pried myself out of bed much, much earlier than my body appreciates to squeeze in a couple extra hours.

But then again. Then again — occasionally I take the time to do something like have a lovely, relaxing picnic with my family in the middle of the day.

And then I am reminded of how much I appreciate the freelance lifestyle. The work is interesting, I have total control over how my career progresses, and I can sometimes take a little time off to do what’s important to me and my family — like picnicking and then napping under a kukui nut tree. I can’t imagine living any other way.

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