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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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‘A Hui Hou' a Hawaiian phrase of fond fair well that sadly has entered the realm of food tradition and food culture. Author Micheal Pollan writes in his book, In Defense Of Food that, “Culture, at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for our mother…What to eat, how much of it, and what order in which to eat it.” Our own personal food culture is an expression of our cultural identity, how our mother has raised us. Foods we've tried and enjoyed or food staples from the places we've lived enter our food vernacular and help create our food traditions. Food, and I'm sure it is the same for most families, was a way my grandmother and her grandmother before her has taught members of my family and others about our family's culture. Unfortunately, over time, some food cultures and traditions have come under siege. And, if these food traditions begin to fade, so will the cultures they come from. But exactly how and why is this happening? In this essay, I will answer this question focusing on one region in particular, the islands of Hawaii.

I had the privilege of living on the island of Oahu, Hawaii for many years. One thing I took away from my time there is hospitality and food are central parts of Hawaiian culture, the “spirit of aloha” if you will.  At least once a week my family and I would attend a “Pot Blessing,”  where everything was “for share.” We were served foods like Spam Musubi (a piece of teriyaki spam on a bed of rice wrapped in nori), Ahi Poké (fresh fish and rice) and Manapua (steamed buns with meat inside) just to name a few. We never ran out of food and usually, there were enough leftovers for everyone two times over. This food culture, all of the different types of foods, and the idea of Pot Blessings has stuck with my family and become an integral part of our food culture. But, the food we ate can't really be put under the umbrella of ancient Hawaiian foods. These dishes are considered to be a part of a completely different category, “local food.”

In order to accurately analyze how Hawaiian food culture has changed, it's important to know exactly what its origins are. The Hawaiian islands were first settled as early as 400 C.E, when Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands. The Kingdom was Hawaii was established by King Kamehameha I in 1810 (Hopkins 35).  In his book, Ku Kanaka, Stand Tall, George Kanahele discusses the simplicity of the ancient Hawaiian diet. He writes, “Ancient Hawaiian's main diet consisted of poi (pounded taro root), fish, birds, breadfruit, pigs, yams, shellfish, and seaweed.” (Kanahele 18)  The main meal of the day was called lu'au.  These feasts were a celebration with copious amounts of food laid out for everyone to share, much like the “Pot Blessings,” I attended. Under the rule of Kamehameha III, on one occasion guests of a lu'au were reportedly served,

”271 hogs, 482 large calabashes of poi, 602 chickens, three whole oxen, two barrels of salt port, two barrels of biscuits, 12 barrels of lau lau and cabbages, four barrels of onions, 80 bunches of bananas, 55 pineapples, 2,245 coconuts, 4,000 heads of taro, 180 squid, oranges, limes, grapes and various fruit.” (Na'auao 12)  

Food is a very important part of Hawaiian culture, it is how they celebrate and come together as ohana. But, despite this importance, Hawaiian food traditions are beginning to fade into the past.

One of the largest cause of this change is mass immigration to the islands. Hawaii is the only state to have Asia has it's largest ethnic group, thus making it a majority-minority state. In the 2016 census of the Hawaiian islands, 50% of people reported being a race other than Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan etc.). 23.9% of the population listed themselves as belonging to two or more races. The Hawaiian word used to describe multiracial people is Hapa, which literally translates to mixed or half. The islands have been praised for their celebration of culture, it is a melting pot of sorts. This mix of cultures has led to a blurring of overall food culture.

In the early 1880's, Japanese and Chinese immigrants began to relocate to Hawaii to work on the sugarcane plantations. With this new migration of families and cultures came new food preferences. Food historian Rachel Laudan wrote in her book, The Food of Paradise that,  “The Chinese, the first immigrants to work on the plantations, demanded rice instead of poi, the Hawaiian staple. At first, their rice had to be imported, but when the Hawaiian population declined, so did the demand for the taro from which poi was made” (Laudan 31). As these immigrants settled, Native elders became wary of sharing their culture. This adding and subtracting of tradition was not expected, and the elders that began to, “resent the confidently domineering ways the newcomers, who were thwarting their activities at so many points, could foresee no future other than displacement and destruction of their race”  (Keesing 449)

 As these groups of people began to mix, Hawaiian food culture as we now know it began to make its appearance. The children of these interracial relationships came to form a unique cultural identity.

A popular restaurant chain throughout the islands is L&L. Their menu consists of plate lunch, which typically includes rice, macaroni salad, and an entree (fish, chicken, beef, pork, or spam). While in Hawaii L&L advertises most of its menu as Hawaiian BBQ, an L&L I visited recently in California advertised its products as Korean BBQ. The menus are identical, but the food is tied to a different culture. This is the type “local” food I referred to earlier.  Other fast food restaurants such as McDonalds and Carls Jr. have integrated this type of cuisine into their menus, serving spam taro pies. Certain McDonalds in the continental United States once served what was called a “Hula Burger.” This burger was smothered in teriyaki sauce and served with lettuce, tomato, and a slice of pineapple. To the consumer, what makes this burger Hawaiian is the pineapple, which granted was a part of the traditional diet, but also the teriyaki sauce, which originates from Japanese cuisine. Hawaiian food culture as a whole is now known as a combination of Asian dishes.

Another cause of this change is staple food items, such as taro root and fish, are becoming harder to attain.  These farming practices are passed down from generation to generation. As I referenced before, these staple foods have been a part of the Hawaiian diet since the islands were first settled. The USDA says that taro, or kalo as it is also called, “is grown in the lowlands. The cormels or keiki (children) are planted in man-made trenches (lo'i)  that are irrigated by diverted mountain streams.”  Wet kalo must have cold running water running through it's lo'i, because warm, standing water will cause the kalo to rot (USDA).  Fresh running water is an essential part of not only the growing and farming of taro but also fish.

Unfortunately, these unoccupied streams are becoming harder to find. In her article, What We Eat Is Who We Are, Prada Mandoe, a professor of Hawaiian studies writes, “Water from more than 90 percent of Hawaii's streams have been taken for sugar cane, housing, and resorts, leaving little to none in the streams.” (Mandoe 33)  Taro and poi are normally sold in one pound bags or 4 ounce containers and sells for sometimes as much as 12 dollars. Because of this shortage, sales are often limited to one per customer. (Foodland 2016)  Poi is no longer a part of everyday diet, it is a luxury, one brought out for the holidays or special occasion. If there is no taro there is no poi, if there is no fish, a large portion of traditional cuisine no longer exists.

However, I do anticipate an objection to my arguments. While to me, the evidence I have brought forward makes it very clear that food culture directly affects our overall culture (and visa versa), there might be some who do not agree. This could be especially true for those who come from a culture in which their traditions or food has not greatly shifted from it's origins, or think that a shift could have been prevented. Margret Visser, a contributor to John Hopkins University's academic journal Social Research, answers these objections in her article, Food and Culture: Interconnections.

Visser writes that if, “you change the diet you will indeed change the culture.”argues that a simple add or subtract of a product or food source directly affects our daily lives. Visser writes about the invention of butter completely changed how marketing is operated. She writes, “Indeed, the adoption of margarine as a butter substitute should be considered one of the very first steps toward what is now called economic globalization.”  She says that food is an all too important tradition, but that,”It can also act as a battering ram, destroying cultural patterns with unforeseeable consequences.”  

With all this mixing, blurring, or even eradication of tradition and cuisine, true ancient Hawaiian food culture is unclear to those who haven't studied it or who's family is of Hawaiian decent. This should not be the case for any culture. Native Hawaiians around the islands are rallying to protect their culture and their food sources, the traditions that are the core of Hawaiian culture.  Hawaiian officials, students, and teachers are bring forward plans of action to state legislature. They believe that simple fixes to the problem will help preserve land and tradition, and allow for more education.  

If we can a least begin to make strides in that direction, it would do a world of difference in preservation of Hawaiian culture in general.  As we continue to grow as unique people, it is important that we continue to discuss and pass along the traditions of our cultures to others.

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