Kauai has a few towns and resorts, but seems to have more chickens than people. Many – perhaps most – of these chickens are on t-shirts, posters, and bumper stickers. Oddly, there isn’t much chicken, or at least chicken isn’t much featured, on Kauai menus. The food, at least on the protein side, is all about fish and pork. Especially pork. I realize that celebrating the chickens has to do with seeing them as an icon of free-wheeling, slow-moving liberty. They amble everywhere they want, living off the land and, with no predators and used to humans, never seeming to be much bothered by anything. Still, I might put a pig on those bumper stickers. Or a fish.
There’s a very good restaurant in Poipu, in a house with a beautiful veranda opening onto a well-tended garden, on what used to be a sugar plantation. The menu is full of Hawaiian ingredients, and the waiters of course point this out. We could walk there from our hotel, so we came back three nights running. I got to thinking about locavorism, and the line between celebrating what’s traditionally raised and eaten in a place, and saying no one in Ohio should ever eat a papaya. Tyler Cowen recently cited a study arguing that contemporary foodies are a conservative force in the culinary world, because their locavore beliefs prevent them from appreciating innovation in cooking, if it combines ingredients from far-flung cultures, or is otherwise “inauthentic.” Hmm… Back on Oahu a few days later, we ate at a casual but ultra-hip nouveau dîner that was all about mashing up preparations and ingredients from different cultures, including at least one – Korean – that, as far as I know, has no strong historical link to Hawaii. Yet here too the menu and staff made much of the ingredients being local. The study, at least as excerpted by Cowen, makes a point – some locavores can come off as tiresome and dogmatics, others as twee. But in my experience, locavorism is more of a jumping-off point for innovation than a barrier to it.
Hiking on the spectacular Napali coast isn’t really that hard, but if it’s been raining, there is a good deal of mud to slip and slide around in. There are also, apparently, flash floods, with rivers and creeks that cross hiking trails cutting them into parts, and stranding people, sometimes for days, until the waters go down. There was a maintenance worker at the trailhead who took great joy in buttonholing us and telling us about this happening, then scolding for being unprepared. It was unclear how we’d prepare other than taking water, which we had, and being careful. Also there is an unmissable sign at the trailhead, giving the same info and tips in a far less dire, and thus easier to digest manner. In the event, the mud and one ford, across a waist deep, fast-flowing creek, holding a rope, with shoes tied together and hanging across a shoulder, were mild challenges.
We could see the small island of Niihau in the distance, off Kauai’s southwest shore. It’s owned by a family, the Robinsons, who bought it in the 19th century. The two Robinson brothers who run the island now have some out-of-the-mainstream ideas. Or rather, they hold some mainstream ideas – modernity isn’t so great, we should honor the traditions of less-developed places and people, and be stewards of nature – that they take to extremes. The are no paved roads or stores. They discourage the locals from speaking English rather than Hawaiian, and leave them to subsist by hunting, but don’t let them use modern weapons. There’s no electricity outside a solar setup on a school. And save a few tourists who are helicoptered in, to hunt or snorkel on isolated beaches, there are no visitors who might bring modernity with them. Perhaps the family is just too broke to build anything since its ranching business shut down, driving away most of the population, and too proud to let outsiders see what’s become of the place. Anyway, there is something eerie about somewhere you can’t go, or at least can’t go to freely, because the people in charge of it don’t want you there. Especially if that place is what I’d call a first-order geographic entity, and those in charge of it make much of its differentness, and the need to keep you out, to preserve that. The parallel is inexact, but looking at the sun set behind Niihau, I had something of the feeling I had, looking into East Germany from Checkpoint Alpha, when I was there as a college kid in the mid-80s.