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Politics and Food

Last of a two-part series.

October 17, 2013
Susan Halas - Contributing Writer ( , Maui Weekly

When I saw the enormous amount of food carried into Bob Nakasone's election night party in 1976, it was my first wakeup call that food and politics were synonymous in the local electoral process. By food I don't mean cheese and crackers, or a bag of chips washed down with a Diet Coke.

By food I mean food that the candidate and his/her supporters worked for weeks to plan, gather and prepare the menu. I mean something really special: pulehu meat on the grill, all kine noodles, chicken hekka, spare ribs, tripe stew, chili, lau lau, Spam musubi, hamburger curry, sashimi, sushi by the tray, two-finger poi, opihi, haupia, kulolo, malasadas, shave ice and fish of every description, fresh-caught and served up with their secret sauces, namasu and on and on.

By food I mean real food cooked by real hands, and served in generous portions with huge scoops of rice and macaroni salad on the side. So much food you didn't know where to start. Food you couldn't buy in restaurants, food that your modern upscale caterer wouldn't know how to make, food that elevated, satisfied, stupefied and left a warm glow of well-being in the eater's opu, food that was piled so high on the plate that it resembles the pyramids of Egypt.

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Connect • The • Dots
Susan Halas

It didn't take me very long to catch on that if I covered the political beat, I would be fed and fed beyond my wildest dreams of culinary delight.

The eat-till-you-drop political rounds began with the primaries. The preliminaries for discerning eaters would be the primary fundraisers, but the culmination--the Everest of local competitive cooking and eating--was opening day at the Hawai'i State Legislature.

Who knew?

In the old days, the opening day at the Legislature was the be-all-end-all of the really good party. Hawai'i made revelry as the cornerstone of the democratic process.

And by party, I do not mean Democrats or Republicans (not that there really were any Republicans). By party, I mean eat till you burst, drink till you're pie-faced, dance and sing till your clothes are soaked with sweat and roam the floors of the Legislature from room to room feasting, shaking hands, hanging over the rails gossiping with your new friends and leaving behind a piles of empty bottles, soggy paper plates, wooden chop sticks in puddles of shoyu, dying lei and exhausted but happy cooks who were also well on their way to complete inebriation.

The Legislature in Honolulu is a multi-storied building built around a large central courtyard, and every floor is ringed by offices and committee rooms large and small. In the center of each floor there is an open air corridor and balcony with a waist-high railing that looks down to the beautiful Tadashi Sato mosaic on the ground. On a normal day, when the Legislature is in session, it is a beehive of big egos and competing interests. The atmosphere is busy and totally self-absorbed.

But on opening day, all that that changed--all petty rivalries were temporarily put aside--and from morning to night, it was an emporium of brotherly love, good will, incredible food, booze, entertainment and a mixing of people from every island and all walks of life passionately dedicated to enjoying themselves and dressed to the teeth for the occasion.

The day would begin with the ceremonies and entertainment for invited guests in the House and Senate chambers. When those ceremonies adjourned, the guests, as well as the public at-large would rush the elevators and stairs and start to go from room to room filling their plates as they went.

There are over 50 state senators and representatives, and you could literally eat 50 different meals--original, delicious, lavish, abundant, a veritable cornucopia of the real food of the islands--given away as if cost or time were of absolutely no concern.

Add to that beer, coolers in the halls and offices, and private open bars with harder stuff for the legislators' real friends and supporters, usually tucked away in an inner office. Music was everywhere, including slack key guitars and ukuleles. Small trios or ensembles lined the corridors.

Beautiful ladies decked in flowers danced the hula, and were often accompanied by increasingly drunken bystanders. Often, these were older men who went by the generic title of "Uncle." These fellows, though they might wobble, usually knew not only the words, but the steps and hand gestures and they could really dance, even if the hip movements tended to be X-rated.

Going up and down the cement steps between the floors was like being in Macy's the day before Christmas; bodies packed shoulder to shoulder smelling of maile, pikake, pakalana, plumeria, Tahitian hair oil and perfumes.

Remember, I was still your basic Jewish girl from Detroit via New York and San Francisco. This was totally outside my frame of reference. My employer, The Maui News, bought me a plane ticket and paid me to go; it was assigned.

I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

The difference between then and now is the DUI laws and the ever-stricter interpretation of liability. In 1977, DUI laws were not yet on the books (and if they were, well, no one paid them much mind). As for liability, it never seemed to enter the equation. All I remember is the Maui contingent staggered out clutching the arms of our less inebriated companions for support and singing a few bars of "Paniolo Country" as we exited the grounds.

I always made it back to the airport and I never heard any complaints.

No, back then we knew how to party, we enjoyed the best that Hawai'i had to offer in hospitality and went home to tell our friends, "We wen grind, brah. Was so ono."

A day, sometimes two, was required for recovery of the guests; but the next day at the Legislature the food was gone and so was the beer and music. As the session got underway, it was all business.

But for that one magical interlude, we were all friends, sons and daughters of the great 50th state and "Lucky Come Hawai'i" was never truer.

To read last week's part one story, "Politics Hawai'i-Style," visit



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