My first taste of salivated-free, traditional Hawaiian poi didn't come until my family moved to Hawaii from American Samoa. I remember having poi at 5 years old for the first time at a luau during a trip to Hawaii for my dad's job interview. At first I refused to eat the poi because it looked like "dirt pudding". I only succumbed to trying it out after my dad said that it was exactly what I eat when mom chews up the taro and puts it in my mouth. (Yes! Even at five my mom would still sometimes do it. Old habits break hard.)
Why am I telling you this blatant personal and maybe embarrassing story? Because that was the first thing to pop in my head while I strolled through a maze of mats on the Rotunda ground occupied by taro lovers, taro virgins, skilled poi pounders, and excited novices eager to learn, teach and just have fun with ku'i kalo, traditional taro pounding and poi making. I bet many of the other attendees floated memories of their first taste of poi or created new ones there.
The Hawaiian Caucus, with the support of KAHEA and Na Kahu o Haloa, hosted the first Taro Festival in celebration of the Legislative Hawaiian Caucus Day. The energy was high with locals and visitors, young and old, carefully lifting the pohaku ku'i 'ai (heavy stone pounder) to the sturdy papa ku'i 'ai (poi board), trying to set a state record for the most people gathered to pound poi.
After running into one of my best friends, Monica Waiau, 26, a volunteer with KAHEA, we sat down with a young woman named Kat Newman, a student at Brigham Young University. She never tasted poi and was thrilled at the idea of making her own poi with organic Hawaiian taro to take home and enjoy. Monica sat adjacent to her and began demonstrating the proper way to pound taro into poi.
Take the poi pounder with one hand. The other hand will be used to gather water. Good. Now smash your first piece of taro. It's better if you go in from an angle. Nice. Now keep adding water to make it smoother. Then, continue to smash on the board while adding the other pieces of poi. Like that. Ok. You'll also want to wipe of the taro from the bottom of the poi pounder and mix it with the ones on the board.
While watching Monica guide Kat through the traditional process of making poi, and answer questions on the Hawaiian culture, I was reminded of the old ways of teaching and spreading knowledge and appreciation. Not through books. Not through legislation. And definitely not through the Internet. But through the experience of sitting next to someone willing and eager to share their knowledge and culture. Someone like Monica.
"I had a dream last night about being here at the Capitol for this event. We were all gathered to pound poi, but instead we started pounding the walls of the building, chipping away at the concrete with each swipe. As the building began to fall away, kalo leaves emerged from the holes," said Monica Waiau on the excitement she felt to bring taro pounding to the Hawaii State Capitol. "It's not about bringing down the building," she added. "It's about revitalizing our traditions; unearthing the true value of taro."
This festival was not just about providing a gathering place for taro lovers and poi pounders , it was also a place to plant the seed of awareness about the importance of taro and the Hawaiian culture as a whole. I hope that this festival was the fertilization needed to stimulate the new crop growth of the education and preservation of the Hawaiian culture.