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‚ÄúJack of all trades, master of none‚ÄĚ ‚Äď this is the mantra that befell me as a young entrepreneur in the early 1980‚Äôs.¬† In the days before lawn services were de rigueur, I started out cutting yards.¬† (And may I take this opportunity to publicly apologize if it was one of your yards I was responsible for.)¬† Later I took my turn keeping the local superette dynasty running smoothly.¬† It was there I developed a taste for late-night chili cheese dogs and lemon drop ice cream.¬† I even participated in a cutting edge agricultural project at MSU‚Äôs North Farm titled, ‚ÄúWill hoeing keep weeds down in a corn field?‚ÄĚ¬† That is, until the day we were cross-pollinating and I blew up into an enormous allergic hive.¬† I learned a lot from each position, but the best summer job ever had to be the one I took in a kingdom far, far away ‚Äď the Kingdom of Kamehameha ‚Äď Hawaii.¬†
I wasn‚Äôt much of a foodie that early in my journey ‚Äď this was nearly 25 years ago ‚Äď but somehow I managed to work up the gumption to try lots of new things anyway.¬† Because Hawaii is such a crossroads of Pacific cultures, there were plenty of first-time tastings.¬†
Perhaps the most famous of all truly Hawaiian foods is poi.¬† Poi is essentially the root of a taro plant which has been pounded into submission and made into a paste.¬† It can be eaten by itself, but I remember it being combined with other foods at the luau, which is where it is usually found.¬† My advice is to eat it once, check it off the bucket list, and move on to the other ‚ÄúP‚ÄĚ words at the feast: pineapple and pig.¬† Speaking of ‚ÄúP‚ÄĚ words, my best recollection of poi was that it reminded me of purple wallpaper paste.¬† But hey, it was 24 years ago and my taste buds have matured.¬† I‚Äôd try it again.
One of my most vivid food memories of that summer was the wide variety of Asian cuisines that were readily available.¬† The Korean barbecue was excellent ‚Äď who knew something with that name could be done well so far away from the Mason Dixon line?¬† At a Chinese restaurant I had a lemon chicken dish that I have searched for ever since I returned to the mainland ‚Äď to no avail.¬† I got hooked on Japanese tempura.¬† But the place I went back to over and over was the Mongolian Barbecue.¬† Here I could pile my plate high with meats, veggies, spices and sauces ‚Äď the variety lover‚Äôs dream ‚Äď then watch the cook stir-fry it all on a giant hot disk.¬† Awesome.
I‚Äôm sure it was my first week on Oahu that I learned the difference between sushi and sashimi.¬† I was relieved to discover that sushi did not necessarily involve raw fish.¬† That didn‚Äôt keep me from taking a deep breath and trying some sashimi, which certainly does involve fish that is not battered and fried as God intended.¬† Been there, done that, moved on.
Of course there was lots of fresh fruit, too.¬† We stopped at the Dole plantation and got fresh pineapple and pineapple whip, the frozen, creamy dessert.¬† I developed a new respect for those who made a living picking this prickly fruit.¬† It‚Äôs even harder than hoeing cotton.¬† There was a papaya tree at one of the homes I visited, too.¬† I wasn‚Äôt crazy about it, but I did give it a fair shot.¬†
A big surprise that summer was the breakfast menu at many of the family-type restaurants (think Shoney‚Äôs, Denny‚Äôs, etc.)¬† I was reading the options for breakfast meats ‚Äď bacon, ham, sausage, SPAM.¬† SPAM?¬† I thought it was a fluke, but they all had it.¬† Then it was on to the breads ‚Äď toast, biscuit, hash browns, rice.¬† RICE?¬† Yep, and I was one of the few folks in the place not ordering it.
Before I got there, I had read in a travel book about the Hawaiian shave ice tradition, and particularly about a place called Matsumoto‚Äôs in Haleiwa.¬† I found it and was very happy with the quality of the shave ice as well as the ice to syrup ratio. (Very important in a snow cone!)¬† But that was just the beginning.¬† The daring eater could up the ante of sweetness by ordering the shave ice atop vanilla ice cream.¬† If you were really feeling like a local, you could swap the ice cream for a sweetened mix of azuki beans, or just pile it all in the cone together.¬† Yes, I tried the triple combo, and yes, I still can conjure up a full body shiver from the memory of the sugar rush.¬†
It took me eighteen years to get back to the islands, this time with my wife.¬† We only had a week to eat our way across Oahu this time, but that‚Äôs another story for another day.¬† I‚Äôm hereby campaigning for a Mongolian Barbecue restaurant in the Cotton District, and a pineapple project at North Farm.¬† And if you ever find that lemon chicken, please let me know.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist.¬† The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff.¬† He¬†¬†¬† welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.View more articles in: