For early Hawaiians, taro, the tropical root vegetable that tastes somewhat like a sweet potato, represented life itself.
For me, grunting and digging into unyielding earth, taro is kind of having the opposite effect. As the sun corkscrews into the back of my neck and sweat stings my eyes, I pry with my shovel’s tip, hunched in the heat. Taro, it seems, is killing me.
A few days earlier, I’d arrived in Maui with a plan. Instead of just being a tourist, I’d get my hands dirty, work the fields that provide organic produce for many of the island’s restaurants and then follow it right to the table. I’d experience authentic Hawaiian culture, live the whole farm-to-fork thing and learn some valuable life lessons.
But Kaanapali, the 4.8-kilometre idyllic stretch of palm trees, gentle waves and resorts that is heralded as one of the best beaches in America, quickly washed away my work ethic. Digging for taro can wait, I thought to myself. I’m digging the Maui scene, baby.
For a while, I lived like a sunburned king. Nibbling freshly cut pineapple and sipping local Bikini Blonde Lager, I spent my hours tilted backwards in my oceanfront lounger at the Hyatt Regency Resort, overlooking paradise and feeling deeply relaxed.
Then the time came to drive with Chef Chris Schobel of Kaanapali’s oceanfront Hula Grill (now chef/owner of Fat Daddy’s Smokehouse) up to Ho‘opono Farm, deep in the West Maui hills.
We made this scenic trip along Highway 30 to dig for taro, part of the menu Schobel had planned for Kaanapali Fresh, one of Maui’s growing string of culinary events that showcase local farmers, ranchers, fishermen and chefs.
It’s an understatement to call taro, and its mashed form, poi (traditionally eaten with fingers), the staple of Hawaiian cuisine, explains Sarah Vowell in her excellent book about Hawaii’s past, Unfamiliar Fishes. The vegetable is literally rooted in Hawaiian history and mythology; those who grow taro are the eyes of the land. When taro is harvested, it is viewed traditionally as a time to rejoice and eat the land.
The land, however, appears to be eating me as I dig deeper. And I am not rejoicing.
The taro lies just far enough beneath the surface to require stomping on the shovel to get purchase on the soil. Sometimes, I have to fall to my knees, reach down and yank hard on the pineapple-sized tubers to free them. Farm co-owner Dave Horsman works at least twice as fast as me, leading me to learn my first life lesson of the trip: I ain’t no farm boy.
It takes about an hour to unearth 10 kilograms of taro. Schobel and I stuff them into five big bags then return to the Hula Grill, where I use a potato peeler to prep the taros while sweating in front of a sweltering Kiawe wood fire. Life lesson No. 2: I’m not really cut out for the kitchen, either.
Schobel makes chips from the taro, atop which he delicately balances a sustainable Kona Kampachi fish tartar with a Japanese-style mayo, radish sprouts, tarragon, capers, citrus fruit and fish roe. Later that night, I help serve the chips to customers. The taro chips are a hit, but there is one final lesson here.
Given all that’s required to go from farm to fork, I realize I work best as a member of the counter culture. Come to Maui and that’s where you’ll find me, bellied up to the counter, ordering beer and taro chips, digging nothing more than the dreamy beachfront scenery.
Getting There: WestJet flies to Maui six times a week from Vancouver.