The Fortunate Feast
For many years Aloha International has celebrated Thanksgiving Day on the Hawaiian island of Kauai by organizing a modern version of a traditional luau, complete with Hawaiian games, entertainment, and especially food. We felt it would honor the cultural source of our teachings, the Hawaiians who used to have a harvest feast of peace and thanksgiving at about the same time, and that it would give many people without families on Kauai a chance to gather and have fun with friends on a familiar holiday.
Preparing for the event has always been part of the fun and volunteers have never been lacking. An unorganized organization comes into being as people sort themselves out according to what they like to do best. Some people start working on the entertainment, either by practicing themselves or recuiting local talent; some people study ancient Hawaiian games and get the proper equipment ready; some take care of the decorations and others take care of the food. It's a pot luck affair, but the ones taking care of the food just make sure that there will be enough main dishes and they leave the rest to luck. No one is really in charge, and yet everything seems to happen the way it should. Nearly everything, that is.
One of the highlights of the day is the serving of a traditional Hawaiian dish called kalua pig and the goodies that accompany it. The word kalua means "pit" and refers to a very special method of cooking.
Traditionally, on the night before the luau several men dig a hole in the ground about two to three feet deep and five to six feet across. A fire is built in the hole and carefully selected, porous lava rocks, four to six inches in diameter, are placed in the fire to heat. The next morning, around five hours before mealtime, some of the rocks are removed and the rest are covered with banana leaves and stalks. Then a cleaned pig, rubbed with sea salt and wrapped in chicken wire, is placed on the pile and the rocks that were taken out of the pit are placed inside the pig. If the cooks want to, they can now pack leaf-covered turkeys, chickens, yams, sweet potatoes and coconut pudding around the pig. After the food is properly stacked, a lot more leaves and a covering of burlap is placed over it. Finally, dirt is shoveled on top of all of this and packed down to make sure that no air gets in. The combination of hot rocks and moisture from the plants cooks the food by steaming. This entire set-up is now called an imu, an earth oven.
Some years ago we used to have the food for the luau prepared this way. In keeping with ancient tradition, we opened the imu with a ceremony. Someone blew a shell trumpet, someone else said a prayer, and the cooks started uncovering the food with care while all the guests gathered around. The appearance of the pig was greeted with a cheer, partly to pay respect to the cooks, and partly because everyone was very hungry by now. If the cooks were pleased with the response of the crowd they may even have handed out bits of the incredibly tender and tasty pork or fowl as they prepared it for serving.
At least that's the way it usually went. Normally Nature is kind to us on Thankgiving day, even though it is the rainy season in Hawaii. A few sprinkles and a bit of wind never stopped us from holding the event outdoors or under an open pavilion.
One year, however, things were very different. A Hawaiian family had offered us the use of a field in a beautiful area of Kauai's east side. As they had in the past, the same family was preparing the imu. But on the morning of the festival a heavy rainstorm hit as we were all heading for the site. The imu was washed out, water covered the field, and cars got stuck in the mud. It looked like a disastrous ending to a party that hadn't even begun, and a waste of all our preparations.
But Huna teaches that there is always another way to do anything, so we just shrugged off the mess and made some rapid rearrangements. Brave volunteers stood in the rain to redirect the cars to a new location - the courtyard of a shopping center in the town of Kapaa (closed for the day) just outside the Hawaiian Art Museum which we used to have there. Benches, tables and the food buffet line were set up in a covered area in front of the museum, and games were played outside in between showers. Some of the women had been preparing a special hula for weeks, complete with traditional ti-leaf costumes. When the time came for their presentation on an outside platform it rained harder than ever, but they went through the whole dance with soaking good grace. And although we didn't have an imu, Gloria came up with a recipe for kalua turkey that captured all of the flavor and texture of food cooked in the original earthen pit.
Because of the way everyone pulled together in the face of disaster, adjusted to radical changes without fuss, and carried on under trying conditions, we all look back on it as one of the best Thanksgiving luaus ever. A truly "Fortunate Feast."
GLORIA'S MODERN KALUA TURKEY
1 banana leaf (if available), cut to length of pan
1-2 tbsp of liquid smoke for brushing on the turkey
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