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Annual Kaumakapili Church Luau is as authentic as Hawaii luau gets

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It’s a lot of food for $15. When the boxes are full, runners, mainly 11- and 12-year-old boys, roll them on carts to Mel Spencer III in the back.

Spencer has inherited this job from his father. “My dad’s not even here today,” he laughs. “He used to drag me along when I was a kid and give me the worst weekends of my life.”

Now, Spencer insists, he’s got an easy job. He sells takeout tickets in advance, and then on luau day, he hands takeout boxes through the downstairs windows of the parish hall. Outside volunteers give them to people who drive up to redeem their tickets.

Spencer’s supposed to pace the operation, so that when people drive up, there will be food—but it will still be hot. He’s worried that he’s taken some big orders. One customer ordered 67 boxes to feed everyone on a job site.

Unfortunately, the pickup for 67 boxes shows up just after someone who’s bought 20 boxes, and just before someone who’s ordered 40. “Wiped out,” he says.

Things slow to a crawl. Traffic backs up to Vineyard Boulevard and even back to the Palama Street offramp. It takes more than an hour to catch up.  The Lakalo family, in charge of feeding the volunteers, passes out dishes of bread pudding and ice cream to cheer up the workers, who are working without air conditioning.

Finally by 5 p.m., the pickup is over. But not the day.

Upstairs all afternoon a group of volunteers has been arranging flowers, setting tables.

As the luau proceeds, Kaumakapili's kahu, Rev. Richard Kamanu, takes the time to smile. Photo by Monte Costa.

I run into one of my new friends, Lorna Motas. I remember her story: She came to this luau two years ago with friends. “I thought the people here were so wonderful, I joined the church,” she said.
Motas worked all day. Now she ties on a palaka apron to wait tables for the sit-down. “This isn’t work,” she insists. “This is relaxation.”

There’s a flurry in the church kitchen. The lomi salmon has run short, and with the food processor returned to its owner, there’s chopping to do by hand. Uncle Aika’s crew is making yet more chicken long rice.

The 500 guests for the sit-down luau arrive, colorful in aloha wear. They walk through a buffet line and then find a seat at one of the communal tables that stretch the length of the dining room.

At $25, the sit-down meal seems a bargain—even before you realize it’s all you can eat. The waitresses are always there to refill your plate, hand you a new container of poi.

Some friends join me at the sit-down. “This is so cool,” says one. “I wonder if it would taste as good if it wasn’t for all this.” She gestures to take in the welcoming atmosphere, the tables of people, the stage full of musicians and dancers.

Setting plays a part, says Kellie Maunakea. “You can get food like this a lot of places. But in ours, you taste more than the ingredients, it’s the hearts and laughter.”

Whatever the reason, it’s great food. I set a personal record for consuming poi and kalua pig.

Full and happy, the guests depart. After cleanup, it’s time for church. We gather in the sanctuary for a brief service.

Kellie gets up in front of the small congregation and says, “It’s been a good day.”  They sold out, people liked the food, but there were two things that were more important than that: tradition and fellowship.

Kahu Kamanu offers a prayer. He thanks the Lord not for the money, not even for helping them get through a long day. “Thank you,” he prays, “for all the new people the luau has brought into our lives.” 


The 39th annual Kaumakapili Church luau happens on Sat., July 17, 2010 at 766 N. King St. Take-out luau boxed lunches/dinners, at $17 each, may be picked up on that day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Kanoa Street, a block mauka ("toward the mountain") of North King St, off Palama Street, behind the church. Should you wish to attend the evening luau at the church, make arrangements in advance; the luau routinely sells out. Tickets for the luau are $25 each. More information at www.kaumakapili.org
or by calling (808) 845-0908.


(This feature was originally published in the December 2009 issue of HAWAII Magazine.)

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