Recapturing the Soul of the Luau
By John Cox
Photos by John Cox

Somewhere in the humid darkness, barely audible over the lapping surf, a lone ukulele melody floats along the tradewinds. Beneath the scent of chlorine, sunblock and artificial coconut room spray wafts the distinct aroma of teriyaki sauce dripping onto hot coals.

Framed by a short hallway, illuminated by bright stadium lights, a theater of polyester aloha shirts and orchid leis watch silently as two dancers sway to a primal drum rhythm. Their grass skirts cast long shadows across a bowl of poi that sits on the otherwise empty buffet like a pale blob of discarded Play Doh, a curiosity left untouched by foreign tongues.

As I observe from a distance I realize that this is a luau without substance, a tradition turned to entertainment, somehow forgetting its very reason for being: community celebration and fellowship. Somehow the very soul of the luau had been lost.

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Celebration reigned in 1819. The rules that dictated life in ancient Hawai`i had been abolished by King Kamehameha II and for the first time commoners were allowed to eat with royalty and women and children were permitted to eat with men. Bananas, pork, turtle and coconuts, once forbidden delicacies, were enjoyed by all. This historic
event was christened by a great feast (aha aina), which would give birth to the modern luau.

For the first time traditional Hawaiian foods such as poi, yams, bananas, pigs, crabs and ferns were enjoyed alongside exotics from the New World: melons, pumpkins, onions and beef. It was a culmination of traditions and new ideas, an end to the mysterious sacrificial rituals of the past and a doorway to the future.

Over the years new cultures were readily adopted. Lomilomi, a dish of salted fish mixed with tomato and onions, was brought to the islands by Western ships. From Japan came rice, teriyaki and miso. Each year visitors brought with them new ingredients and ideas from around the globe.

Hula, the traditional Hawaiian dance used to share stories for over 1,600 years, also evolved. Carefully choreographed hand movements and soft ukulele music were frequently replaced with the dramatic fire dancing of Samoa and fast-paced Tahitian drumming

In 1856 the Pacific Coast Advertiser first referred to the `aha`aina or pa’ina as a “luau,” borrowing the Hawaiian name for taro leaf, an ingredient essential to many traditional Polynesian dishes. This new name was quickly embraced and is used almost exclusively today

Many things have changed in Hawai`i over the last 200 years, but the aloha spirit remains strong. Across the islands friends and families celebrate life together with food and music, paying tribute to their own distinctive heritage through recipes and traditions.Whether you come together around a smoldering imu, a barbecue on your back porch or just a bottle of wine with a few friends, never forget that true spirit of the luau and the many things we have to be thankful for living here in Hawai`i.