Saturday, May 31, 2008

Local Food: The Chickens of Kauai

“Nothing that came to Hawaii arrived here easily,” says James Michener in his great fictional history, Hawaii. Except for the chickens, that is.

I had the good fortune recently of being invited by a dear friend, a travel agent, to share a week long trip to Kauai that she had won in an industry contest. Given that Seattle enjoyed the coldest, most miserable spring on record it was a real treat, despite the my guilt about our enormous carbon footprint (subject of a future blog). We hiked the Nepali Coast trail, traversed the gorgeous rim of Waimea Canyon, and picked our way along many a rocky seacoast. We kayaked the Wailua River and toured the National Tropical Botanical Gardens. It was fabulous. Everywhere there were chickens.

The chickens are important because Hawaii seems to lack local food. I’m planning to spend July through September eating food produced within 300 miles of my home in our glorious and abundant Pacific Northwestern climate. If I lived on Kauai, that distance would include pretty much the whole island, not to mention a great deal of ocean. And yet, sadly, there’s not much local food on offer and the seas are depleted. My friend at I shopped at several grocery stores along the route to stock our luxury condo (guilt alert). I planned to find good, regional food as I would do at home. How hard could this be? Hard, actually.

All the dairy food came from Wisconsin, New Hampshire, or California. Okay, dairy isn’t a tropical kind of food and I can understand importing cheese from the upper Midwest. I did my best and chose Tillamook Cheddar, not exactly local to the Sandwich Islands but from a 3oo-mile radius of Seattle anyway. Every vegetable I could find was grown in central valley of California; this supports my Cousin Barbara’s family ranch in Stockton but not the families of Lihue. Can’t these people raise spinach?

Then there were some real insults. The Maui potato chips were manufactured in Pleasanton, California. The strawberries and blueberries and most other fruit flew in from Mexico. Hardest of all, a carton of orange/pineapple juice I picked up was stamped Florida! The honest truth is that the only local food I could find was 99 cent mangoes (69 cents at Top Banana in Ballard) and 59-cent a pound pineapples.

Michener says the “boat plants”, the food staples that the Polynesians brought with them from Bora Bora included taro, a sturdy root that grows easily in the climate and feeds the hungry. For a thousand years the staple taro was grown by the Hawaiians until it was replaced briefly by the rice fields of the Asian immigrants. Those fields now support beef cattle. The Polynesians also brought the chickens who went native immediately.

“What about farmers’ markets?” you ask. There is one every weekday on this small island, called Sunshine Markets. Being a huge fan of such events, I dragged my friend to the Saturday market in the little town of Waimea. This turned out to involve six tiny stalls in a dirt parking lot of a school, with six cars backed up and tiny Asian women selling their produce on card tables. Of course, their leeks and tomatoes and papayas brought us great joy (especially the papayas), but the stock of the entire market might feed my boys and their friends for ten days if I stretch it.

In five years, when gas is $7.00 a gallon and only the super-rich can be tourists in Hawaii, the California-raised Safeway food will be prohibitive to the average Hawaiian. They are going to have to eat those chickens. The little Asian women will emerge as the power-house producers that they are. Taro and its fascinating derivative, poi, will come back in fashion. I was worried about the lovely people of Kauai not having local food to eat as we reach peak oil because the carbon footprint of groceries in Hawaii is huge. My prediction is, however, that the ancient Polynesians are going to keep on giving and those boat plants and animals will save the day.

In 2020, dinner will be chicken, poi, farmer’s market leeks and Chinese broccoli in papaya sauce. It’ll be great, especially the papaya sauce.

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