Spent a pleasant lunchtime talking about Hawaii Regional Cuisine with historian Stan Sam Yamashita, who is writing an article and possible a book about the subject. He’s a local boy who is now the Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History at Pomona College
in Claremont, Calif. He impressed the heck out of me with the amount of scholarship he’s put into this subject.
I was flattered that he was interested in my mana’o as someone who has been watching the movement for 20-plus years. He looked very thoughtful as I expressed my belief that, in a real sense, HRC existed before the famed group of 12 got together on the Big Island 20-some years ago to formally found their chef consortium to promote the sourcing of local foods and the preservation of local food traditions.
HRC is based on the food we call “local.” Whether it’s prepared by someone who moved here from the Mainland or someone who was raised here, HRC restaurant food has its source in the multicultural cuisine that immigrants here and their descendents made happen — the ingredients they brought or found and the dishes they ate or created. The quick, folksy salt-and-cabbage tsukemono your great grandma made might become a sophisticated relish on a $25 restaurant plate with the addition and subtraction of various ingredients, classic cutting techniques and so on. But it can be traced to your grandma’s kitchen.
This is not to take one thing away from the chefs, only to point out that the movement they so famously built, promoted and promulgated didn’t begin in a vacuum.
He asked me about the future of HRC and it got me thinking — but without many conclusions. I think that, at least in some kitchens, HRC hit a creativety wall a while ago (serve me no more grilled fish with mango coulis, please; been there, ate that). I wonder if, like pidgin English, it’s fading (we don’t need pidgin to communicate anymore; do we need HRC to tell us our food is interesting, unique, legitimate and important?). Will it become an artifact as fewer people cook?
I think we’ve grown up and growing up is difficult. Romantic ideas, hopes and dreams give way to harsh realities. The truth is, while we can grow and harvest multitudes of great stuff here, in case after case, it hasn’t proved practical to do so. The fact is that farmland is growing increasingly scarce, fisheries are increasingly shrinking, there are no slaughterhouses, government regulation remains antiquated and onerous, our salubrious climate is also friendly to many pests and scourges, locally grown food is more expensive. . . . The proliferation of true farmers markets is a bright, bright spot, but a tiny one. Most kitchens — homes and restaurants, not to mention institutional — are still are stocked by a very high percentage of imported foods. Locavore eating is still an altruistic dream (witness the trouble Alan Wong had creating a true locavore dinner a while back). Diversified ag is far, far, far from creating the economic security — either for farmers or for consumers — that commodity ag once did here. And nobody seems to know what to do about this complex tangle of problems.
Least of all little me. I just go on documenting what I can, cooking what I love, talking about what I know (and sometimes what I don’t know) and encouraging people to think about Island foodways, malama them and share them.