You might well ask why, apart from nostalgia for the ten years that I spent in the Hawaiian Islands, I might be interested in the eating habits of David Kalakaua, King of Hawaii from 1874 to his death in 1891.  Or even more why they might be of any interest to you.

The first reason is that the spread of cuisines is at least as important, probably more important to understanding food history than the invention of new dishes. At least that’s my belief.

And thus how an intelligent Hawaiian such as Kalakaua, with sufficient money to allow him to make choices, decided to adopt and adapt Anglo-French cuisine at least on official occasions is a fascinating case study.

After all, the traditional Hawaiian cuisine based on pounded taro and fish is about as different from Anglo-French cuisine based on roast meats and bread as it’s possible to be.

Second, throughout his life Kalakaua worried about how to maintain, and if possible expand across the Pacific, a small monarchy even as the western empires expanded. As a result, his dining became one more episode in the long debate about the relation between monarchies, republics, and their respective cuisines.

To give a bit of background, Kalakaua came to power about three generations after Captain Cook had first landed in the islands.  Cook’s arrival had given Kamehameha, a chief on the largest of the islands, the weapons to unite the islands in a single kingdom in 1810, and to maintain their independence from European powers.

The promise of the early post-contact years turned sour as the Hawaiian population plunged, adventurers from around the world decided to stay in the islands, and easy ways of getting cash to deal with living in the wider world, such as selling off fragrant sandalwood, or re-stocking New England whaling ships, ran out.  The arrival of Congregational missionaries from New England in 1820 further complicated the situation.

Hawaiian cuisine was changing rapidly.  Whalers wanted meat and bread, so a ranching industry (using descendants of cattle dropped off by Captain Vancouver, Cook’s successor) grew up, Mexican cowboys from California were brought in to manage the cattle. And bakers were needed.  Some bakers at least came from Canton, another long story.

So I was really delighted when Henry Voigt, who collects menus and has a fascinating blog, The American Menu, posted menus for two dinners that Kalakaua attended.  As he says

Menus aid our cultural memory. They provide unwitting historical evidence—not only of what people were eating, but what they were doing and with whom they were doing it; who they were trying to be; and what they valued. Deciphering the particular story behind each menu requires great sleuth-work.

So with Henry Voigt’s permission, I am re-posting his sleuth work here. And thanks to @mmpack for making sure that I did not miss Henry Voigt’s story.

And my next post will be on the menu for Kalakaua’s coronation in 1883 and what that adds to the story.

From Henry Voigt, The American Menu, 1 jan 2014

King Kalākaua of Hawaii

 New Bedford & Honolulu,

For those of us who live on the Mainland, the words “king,” “palatial residence,” and “Hawaii” are likely to conjure up images of Elvis, Graceland, and the movie Blue Hawaii, before recalling that Hawaii once had a royal family. One of the kingdom’s last monarchs was David Kalākaua who ascended the throne in 1874. Kalākaua entered the history books again that year when he became the first foreign head of state to visit the United States. While the purpose of his trip was to sign a treaty of reciprocity, assuring Hawaii a duty-free market for its sugar and other goods, he used the opportunity to visit people and places in America that had had a long relationship with his country. Two menus dating from this period, one from a dinner with old contacts in the whaling industry, the other from a luncheon after he returned to Hawaii, reveal interesting details of his goodwill visit and daily life at home.

On December 12, the new sovereign called on President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House, where he received a warm and cordial welcome, for Hawaii supported the Union during the Civil War, providing the North with sugar, cotton and rice that were then in short supply. With the state visit off to a good start, the king traveled to New York later that month, where he attended a performance of “The Gilded Age” by Mark Twain. (During a visit to the Hawaiian Islands eight years earlier, Twain met the future king who was then thirty, a year younger than the writer. Although he was favorably impressed by Kalākaua, Twain humorously described the islands as teeming with whalers, ship captains, and multitudes of cats, not to mention “cockroaches, and fleas, and lizards, and red ants, and scorpions, and spiders, and mosquitoes and missionaries.”1) Unable to join the king at the theater, Twain invited his old acquaintance to stop by Hartford, Connecticut for lunch the next day. However, the king’s heavy schedule precluded him from accepting this last-minute invitation, having already agreed to stop in New Haven on his way to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he would attend a dinner in his honor on New Years Day.

New Bedford was the main port of the American whaling fleet. In the mid-1840s, when the industry was at its height, the vast majority of the 600 ships that arrived each year at Oahu and Maui came from the United States. Although whaling was now in decline, and San Francisco was becoming the primary base of operations, the royal visit caused a great stir of excitement in New Bedford. Many of the residents in this seafaring town had fond memories of the Hawaiian Islands which they visited for decades. Taking these feelings of nostalgia into account, the mayor held a reception at his office where “scores of hoary-headed veterans of the sea” were presented to the king who remembered some of them from years earlier. This reunion was followed by a dinner at 2:00 p.m. at the Parker House, a local hotel that bore no resemblance to the luxury establishment with that name in Boston. The menu below features standard dishes like boiled codfish, leg of mutton, and roast turkey with cranberry sauce.

By 3:40 p.m., the honored guest was escorted to the train station and on his way to Boston, the port of embarkation since 1820 for many of the Protestant missionaries that went to Hawaii. Over time, these American proselytizers gained spiritual and political influence with the royal family who were educated in mission schools.

‘Iolani Palace (ca. 1975)

After the trade treaty was signed in late January, King Kalākaua returned home to the ‘Iolani Palace, a one-story wooden building that was the grandest house in Honolulu.2 The luncheon menu below from December 1875 provides a fascinating glimpse of daily life at the official residence. Standing in marked contrast with the stark bill of fare in New Bedford, this fancy French menu is trimmed in paper lace and bedangled with a curious cotton ribbon, making it look more like it was made for a royal court in Europe than one in the subtropics, overlooking the white sand beaches of Waikiki.

Nicknamed the “Merrie Monarch,” the king enjoyed the luxury and grandeur that went with his position, and why not, for as the comedian Mel Brooks once said, “It’s good to be king!” Still, Kalākaua believed he had a higher purpose, and today is remembered for creating a renewed sense of pride in the Hawaiian culture by reviving the hula, one of the ritual practices long suppressed by the missionaries. After his death in January 1891, he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last monarch to reign over the Kingdom of Hawaii.

1. Mark Twain, “Scenes in Honolulu, No. 4,” Sacramento Union, 19 April 1866.
2. In the early 1880s, the termite-infested palace was torn down and replaced by a Victorian dollhouse three times larger with an inner structure made of brick.


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