It’s cookbook award time. And the number of stunning cookbooks that are out there is overwhelming: beautifully written, well-tested recipes, and glorious photography.
Yet there are so many lovely books that are never entered, often books of the heart, books that had to be written, whether or not they were attuned to the latest fads and fashions of the fickle food market.
And here’s one of my nominations: The Island Plate: 150 Years of Recipes and Food Lore from The Honolulu Advertiser. Of course having spent a decade in Hawaii I am alert for any cookbook that opens new perspectives on the culinary history of these islands, one of the greatest culinary laboratories in the world.
And of course the author Wanda Adams, formerly features editor of the Honolulu Advertiser throughout the 1990s, holds a special place in my heart. I’d read her columns in the paper for years as I secretly worked to figure out Hawaii’s always surprising, often delicious and always convoluted cuisines. When I finally plucked up the courage to get comments on my manuscript, I turned to Wanda. We met in some restaurant that was trendy at the time, in a dark, dark booth.
“You’ve written my book,” said Wanda, “I can’t be your friend.” And without a second’s hesitation urged me forward. Such generosity is something you never forget.
Now Wanda’s written her book. It’s the book I wished for when I arrived in the islands in the late 1980s, a cookbook that loved Hawaii, understood Hawaii, and did not judge Hawaii.
Wanda’s stroke of genius was to take the hundred and fifty years archives of the Honolulu Advertiser and use them as the basis of her book. She adds historic photos, some hilarious, some heart wrenching, and contemporary food photography. Even this has a twist. How many food stylists have carefully arranged crackers doused with milky coffee in a a bowl to illustrate the traditional poki wai/kanaka pudding/sopa? She carefully corrects common errors. The elements of the plate lunch don’t encompass all the peoples of Hawaii–Portuguese, Okinawans, and Puerto Ricans get left out. Spam did not become popular until well after World War II.
So who is Wanda? She grew up in the Iao Valley on Maui and like so many Locals went to the mainland for a while, getting a degree from the University of Washington and working as food editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Then she returned to the islands and by her own account ended up marrying her high school sweetheart. Between them they now have five children, birth, step- and hanai children. (Hanai children are those who are willingly gifted to and accepted by some different part of the family, still a rather common custom).
In the few moments free from her work at the newspaper, as she puts it, “she researched Portuguese food in Hawaíi and began the Great (unfinished) Portuguese American novel.”
Maybe she should finish it because listen to her.
On saloon pilots.
“The saucer-size crackers, which produced a hailstorm of crumbs the moment you bit into them and had almost no discernible flavor beyond a hint of burnt toast, were always close at hand, along with the butter dish (which probably held margarine, since who could afford butter?) and the guava jelly jar. Islanders believe there IS no better vehicle for butter and guava jelly.
Your grandfather, like mine, might have considered milky coffee and crumbled saloon pilot crackers the breakfast of the gods. Your mother, like many here, might have used rolling-pinned saloon pilots to extend her meatloaf. And the tall, rectangular tin can, like a cat, had multiple lives–first as a container for crackers, then (after Dad had done some tinsmith magic on it) as a scoop, a dustpan, a candle lantern or some other practical utensil.”
On a glut of avocados, guavas and mangos.
“Remember when you used to duck into the house quick, so your neighbor wouldn’t see you, then leap over the mock orange hedge with yet another bag of mangoes to bequeath?”
On laulau, salt fish and pork wrapped in leaves.
“Why did God invent pressure cookers? So you wouldn’t have to dig up the back yard for an imu when you wanted laulau.”
On the politics of Hawaii.
“Most of us here grew to accept as gospel that anything that was good for sugar, pineapple, tourism or tropical agriculture was good for us all. Life here was a team sport, and all the ohana were on the pep squad.”
And my favorite, on the difficult relations between the peoples of Hawaii and the tourist image, this time in the 1950s.
“Hawaii is a place of layers–like the kaona, the hidden meanings, in Hawaiian songs; like the temperature layers in the ocean, touching but never quite mingling. So even as this cheerful Pineapple Poo Poo madness was being carried out, local people were quietly going about creating their own dishes. Their party grounds wasn’t the terrace at the Royal Hawaiian, or the lanai of a seaside Kahala home; it was the carport, or a tarp-shaded corner of a public park. And while pineapple was not unknown, these potluck dishes have deeper, more authentic roots.”
And then there are the recipes that instantly transport you to the Islands. This one for oxtail soup summons up all those lunches in humble places where slurping the broth with my spoon, snagging the peanuts and getting the meat off the bones with chopsticks, and digging into the bowl of rice on the side, took my mind off work and sent me sailing into my afternoon classes at the University.
By the way, Wanda points out that the Islands are among the largest consumers of oxtail in the US (so it’s not just Spam). It has Chinese origins but the cattle that overran the Islands give it beefy twist.
2 pounds small, meaty oxtails
2 whole star anise
1/2 lb raw, skinless peanuts
1 three-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 medium onion, peeled and cut into wedges
1 piece dried tangerine peel
Salt to taste
2 carrots, peeled and diced
Chinese parsley (cilantro) for garnish
Rinse the oxtails in hot running water. Place them in a large, heavy pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil; skim surface foam. Add anise, peanuts, ginger, onion and tangerine peel. Bring water to a boil again, add salt, then turn heat down and simmer about two hours, until meat is tender. If the broth reduced too quickly, add water as needed to cover oxtails. Add carrots and simmer for about another one-half hour. Remove anise, ginger and tangerine peel and discard. Garnish with Chinese parsley.
Wanda, you’ve written your Hawaii book. I can’t wait for the Great American Portuguese novel.
Google doesn’t show the first volume of the Island Plate. But Wanda has published a second volume.
And here’s Wanda on Portuguese Bean Soup, on which she had very decided opinions.
- Some Thoughts on Bread in the French Alps
- More on Bread from William Rubel