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Annual Kaumakapili Church Luau is as authentic as Hawaii luau gets

The volunteer luau waitresses at the Kaumakapili Church Luau have been working since morning and area still smiling by evening. Photo by Monte Costa.

Say you want to put on a luau. Not the usual commercial luau fare—no teriyaki chicken thighs, battered mahimahi, macaroni salad—but authentic Hawaiian food, real kalua pig, poke and that quintessential part of every Hawaiian meal, opihi.

Say you want to feed 3,000 people. To make it easy, 2,500 of those meals can be takeout. Still, could you pull that off? Using only volunteers?

Kaumakapili Church— only 175 members, many of them elderly—has been pulling this off annually on Oahu, for 38 years (and will do so again this Saturday, July 17).

“We get a lot of help,” says Kellie Maunakea, co-chair of the (2009) luau. “What we do isn’t just about the food. If you really want to understand our lū‘au, you have to see the process.”
That’s why I am at the church at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, a week before (last year's) luau. I’m early. “The pigs are late,” says Maunakea.

Not all the pigs. Enough have arrived that when I walk down the stairs of Hale Kamika, the church’s parish hall, the smell of kālua pork knocks me nearly senseless with hunger.

Pigs, thoroughly cooked, keep arriving with every pickup driven by the congregation’s young men, who heft them inside in long, heavy deboning pans.

Years ago, the pigs would have been cooked in imu (underground ovens) right here, on the church property. No longer. The parish hall was built on top of the church’s imu ground.

Today, the 15 pigs have been cooked at Kamehameha Schools’ sheltered imu facility. Kaumakapili is the only outside group to use it.

The two institutions are, in a way, family. Kaumakapili Church is 170 years old, built originally on land donated by a high chief and trusted confidant of Kamehameha III, Abner Paki, and his wife, Princess Laura Konia.

They in turn were the parents of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, whose trust still supports Kamehameha Schools. During the monarchy, Kaumakapili Church became an important gathering place for the Hawaiian community.

There’s plenty of history here—and, at the moment, plenty of pig, more than a ton.

The pigs have spent 12 hours in the imu, meat falling off the bone. But, wearing disposable gloves, 50 or 60 volunteers go through it carefully, breaking it apart, removing every trace of banana leaf, skin, fat, bone.

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Check out these related HawaiiMagazine.com posts:
Doing a Hawaii-themed luau away from Hawaii
Where to find Hawaii gifts and souvenirs that are really from Hawaii: A list
Tales from a Waikiki "on-the-beach" luau

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