A photograph of a royal lu‘au thrown by King Kalakaua, with Robert Louis Stevenson and Queen Liliuokalani, taken Feb. 1, 1889 at the Henry Poor residence in Waikiki. Others present are Fanny Stevenson, her children, Lloyd Osbourne and Isobel Strong, and Stevenson’s mother, Margaret B. Stevenson.

Jan TenBruggencate

The Hawaiian-themed feast that we today call a lu‘au, ‘aha‘aina or pā‘ina has a long tradition in the Islands.

And key elements haven’t changed too much, although baked dog is generally avoided these days.

Missionary Hiram Bingham wrote that when nobility visited regions away from their homes, they were greeted with festive events that involved an enormous amount of food. His book, “A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands,” was first printed in 1847.

“On the arrival of such a party, hogs, dogs, and poultry, are slaughtered and baked in the ground with heated stones and a repast of a few simple articles in profusion is prepared.

“Slaughtered animals, larger and smaller, baked whole, are set forth in full size on heavy wooden platters, placed on the ground or mats. At intervals are set calabashes of poi, and other dishes of vegetables and fish.”

An account of a royal visit to Kaua‘i says King Kaumuali‘i would put his guests on his best woven mats, including “figured Niihau mats.” These would be the prized makaloa mats, which were highly valued and woven from the stem of the makaloa reed. On Kaua‘i today, weavers are reviving interest in weaving makaloa, and some get their materials from the wetland restoration being done by Malama Hule‘ia at Niumalu.

Guests would dip their fingers in water — perhaps to wash or perhaps to prevent food from sticking — and then reach in, to “lay hold with fingers of what comes to hand—meat, fish, poi, potatoes, cresses, sea moss, and fruit.”

To drink, the participants took cold water from gourds. After the arrival of Westerners, in the early days they might add tea or rum.

As night fell, strings of oily kukui nuts were lit to provide illumination.

At an O‘ahu feast, Bingham wrote of a feast celebrating the ascension to the throne of Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli.

At a 100-foot-long table, “he seated himself, having his five wives and about a hundred guests, chiefs and favorites a few missionaries, shipmasters, and residents, to dine with him. Thousands of his subjects, man, women, and children, crowded at a little distance to gaze.

“The armed guard stood around between them and the table; and some warriors of Kamehameha, promenading in their feathered war-cloaks and tippets, made a striking display of their brilliant military decorations.”

But only having high-ranking folks eating was not always the tradition. David Malo wrote of another kind of feast at which all were welcome.

“If any one, man, woman, or child, came near and looked in upon the scene of the feasting, he must come in and partake with them of the feast. It would be an ill omen to allow him to turn away empty.”

And the tradition of taking a plate of food home? That has plenty of history, too.

“In many cases, the host sits by, while travelling guests take their meal and stow for subsequent meals the residue of what is set before them,” Bingham wrote.

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.

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