More than an exotic luau food, poi is a Hawaiian staple that feeds body and spirit.

Underneath the canopy there was a bustle of activity. It was 7 a.m. and a long line of volunteers sat along the brightly colored picnic tables hard at work. Fifty-five gallon drums of cooked taro were being poured into steel basins set on top of dollies.

The basins were rolled over to the waiting volunteers, I among them. Plunging my hand into the warm water I’d come up with a slippery taro root wrapped in a husk-like skin. Our job was to take the skin off, leaving the purple flesh underneath.

Local characters sat around the basin and talked story while we peeled hundreds of pounds of corms (roots). Behind me was a mill. Going full force, grinding the kalo (taro) into the soft pulp known as poi. Aunties graceful hand movements rhythmically placed the freshly milled and sticky poi into plastic bags.

Several tourists helped. They happened by the Tuesday market and met Auntie Kalo who in turn invited them to spend some time learning about Hawaiian culture while making the Hawaiian staple.

In 1982 a group of kapuna (elders) worked with family members and advocates to create the Waipa Foundation. Its mission is to restore the ahupuaa (watershed) of Waipa as a Native Hawaiian community center. To foster learning by preserving native Hawaiian traditions through a sustainable, culturally and community-based model for land-use and management.

In appreciation, the volunteers were fed a local style lunch. We also got to take some poi home with us. Waiting for lunch (chicken stir fry, steamed rice, the poi we just made, and fresh baked bread) I talk story with Uncle Charlie. In the open-air workshop he weaves a fishnet, his hands deftly moving in a meditative pattern. Uncle Charlie, an 82 year old native of Kauai who recently lost his wife of 56 years says he has nothing but time. He makes these nets as gifts for local boys to fish with.

It’s a communal meal, everyone filling their plates and sitting along the picnic tables. The tasty food goes down easy, we were hungry from a morning of making poi. My hands were stained a light purple, I’m told we made 300 pounds of poi that day.

Photos by Dan Lane


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