Love is the primary ingredient in Kaumakapili Church’s 40th annual benefit luau today, featuring Hawaiian food made from classic recipes that have been handed down by the kupuna over the generations.
"The fellowship and opportunity to share with people is our labor of love. It goes into the food, and that’s why the food tastes good," says church President Kellie Maunakea. "We do good work with the money we raise to help the community."
The renowned luau, featuring 11 whole roasted pigs, is the "pièce de résistance" of the church’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of its current sanctuary in Kalihi-Palama. It is the third building of worship in the 173-year history of Kaumakapili, once known as the "Queen of the Hawaiian Churches."
At 5 p.m. today in the church’s community hall, 300 dinners — sold out weeks in advance at $30 a plate — will be served amid the merriment of Hawaiian music and hula. Another 2,300 takeout meals, at $17 apiece, have been sold and may be picked up today between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
"It takes a mammoth effort on our part every year, but it’s part of what we do. People have fun working side by side, and get to know new people while packing a bowl of chicken long rice. We see people we haven’t seen in ages. We look forward to it, and we get much more than we put into it," she said.
"The luau is two years older than me," said Maunakea, who has been helping out as long as she can remember. "Over 40 years we’ve gotten our process down to a manageable production of family, friends and volunteers working together." About 200 people work the day before the luau and the day of the event, so "it’s as fresh as you can get it," she said.
The congregation has had to move and rebuild its sanctuary three times, and "that we’re still here" is testament to the members’ indomitable spirit, Maunakea said.
"We’ve been through years of struggle, rebirth, tears and celebration. Though all of it, God’s been good to us. We will continue to thrive in the community we’re in," she said. "The community has changed a lot since we moved here."
The original church sanctuary was a thatched-roof adobe structure on the corner of Smith and Beretania streets in Nuuanu. It was torn down to build the second church with the landmark twin steeples, but it burned down in the 1900 Chinatown fire. The third and current sanctuary, at 766 N. King St. in the Keoneula section of Kalihi-Palama, was built in 1910 and dedicated June 25, 1911.
In adapting to the needs of the community, Kaumakapili serves a transitioning, immigrant population, where English as a Second Language classes are offered at the Farrington Adult Community School affiliate on church grounds. Outreach programs include the Hawaii Food Bank, the Free Store (which gives clothes and household items to individuals in need), Ka Makana (financial assistance for Hawaiian orphans), Na Lima Kakoo (basic needs for Hawaiian children and families) and others.
Members of the church’s original families have dwindled due to age, but "other families have come in, and bring new life to the church."
But the old-time recipes have survived, passed on by the kupuna (elders) who had the know-how to help other UCC churches establish their luaus long before Kaumakapili began holding its own, she said. Everything from the kalua pig to the lomilomi salmon is made the old-fashioned way. "We never use substitutes," Maunakea said.
The most labor-intensive menu item is obviously the pig, which is roasted for hours in the imu or an oven in the ground, with hot stones and banana and ti leaves — no liquid smoke used here! The animal is kept whole, though it would be easier to use just the shoulder or butt portions, she said. And the church buys market-bred pigs that are young and grain-fed at about 200 pounds, so the meat is sweeter and not as fatty as pigs that weigh more than 300 pounds, she added.
In honor of the luau’s 40th anniversary, squid luau, made only once every five years, will be served at the sit-down dinners, Maunakea said. The specialty is made with luau leaves, not spinach, a common substitute. The lomi salmon consists only of salmon, tomatoes and green onions, not the round onions most people use as a filler, she added.
Because the church is filled with good cooks, Maunakea was reluctant to name just a few, but said favorite recipes have come from relatives of the late Hawaiian music legend Martha Poepoe Hohu, and the Aarona and Iaea families, she said. (Hohu is also the daughter of longtime minister Henry K. Poepoe, whose father, Abraham, was also a church kahu.)