When Maria Orr, was growing up in Wailua and Kapaa Heights on Kauai, she remembers Mr. Lai, the “poi man,” would deliver poi in 10-pound bags to her family’s house every week.
“We always had a huge bowl of poi on the kitchen table,” said Orr, founder and one of the organizers of Hana’s annual East Maui Taro Festival. “We usually ate poi for dinner, but sometimes for breakfast and lunch, too. We ate it with fish, stew, hamburger goulash, canned sardines — just about anything! Sometimes I would even eat poi with just ketchup.”
Orr has long nurtured an interest in cultural tourism, and so in 1992, when a friend told her about the now-defunct Pacific Islands Taro Festival on Oahu, she was intrigued. At the time, her husband, Fred, was in the middle of a three-year stint as the general manager of the Hotel Hana Maui (now Travaasa Hana), and she was active in the community.
“I thought Hana would be the perfect place for such a festival because traditions are still honored there,” Orr said. “It’s remote, quiet, laid-back, an authentic vignette of Hawaii’s past. Although I’m living on Oahu now, Hana will always be the home of my heart, which is why I’ve continued to help coordinate the festival all these years along with our awesome board.”
IF YOU GO: EAST MAUI TARO FEST
>> When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 21
>> Where: Hana Ball Park, 5091 Uakea Road, Hana, Maui
>> Admission: Free
>> Phone: (808) 264-1553
>> Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
>> Website: tarofestival.org
EVENTS ON APRIL 22
Taro Pancake Breakfast
>> 7 to 10:30 a.m., Barefoot Cafe/Helene Hall at Hana Bay. Advance-purchase tickets at the festival’s agriculture booth are $8 adults and $5 children ages 2-12. At the door, $10 adults, $8 kupuna 55 and older, $5 children.
Kapahu Living Farm open house
>> 1 to 3 p.m.; Haleakala National Park, Kipahulu. Participants can visit any time during the two-hour span. If you’d like to help plant taro, wear clothes that you don’t mind getting muddy and bring a change of clothes. Free (donations appreciated). Email email@example.com or call (808) 281-2021 for directions.
Kahanu Garden cultural tour
>> 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 650 Ulaino Road. Participants must provide their own transportation. Pre-registration at the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s booth recommended. Check in at 10:45 a.m. No fee; donations to the garden are accepted.
The concept Orr developed for the taro festival’s logo is simple but significant: a black-and-white drawing of a mature kalo (taro) plant with curved lines behind it, representing a rainbow, symbolizing peace and people of all races.
The Hawaiian words aloha, lokahi, laulima and hana also appear on the logo. In Orr’s view, they are the “foundation” upon which connections are built.
“Aloha means love, affection and compassion,” she said. “Lokahi is defined as unity, harmony and agreement. Laulima is cooperation, people working together. And Hana, the place, also refers to work, activity and service. All of those are needed to plan and implement a big event like the East Maui Taro Festival.”
The inaugural festival was held on March 26 and 27, 1993. Some 3,000 people came. This year, Orr expects as many as 5,000 to celebrate its 26th anniversary.
“Oral traditions tell us kalo was the elder brother of the first kanaka maoli, the indigenous people of Hawaii,” Orr said. “In ancient times, kalo was a primary staple here, and it connected the people to the land. Kalo is the symbolic core of the Hawaiian culture.”
Headlining the entertainment on April 21 will be Grammy- and Na Hoku Hanohano award-winner John Cruz. Visitors to the festival can eat taro burgers, taro seafood chowder and squid and taro luau; and pound poi; make kapa (tapa); play konane (checkers) or weave a lau hala bracelet.
Excursions are planned for April 22 to Kapahu Living Farm, where ancient wetland taro patches have been restored, and Kahanu Garden, which includes Piilanihale Heiau, the largest known ancient temple in Polynesia.
ALL ABOUT TARO
>> Taro was one of the 24 “canoe plants” brought to Hawaii by the first Polynesian settlers for food, clothing, shelter, medicine and more. In ancient times, there were 300-plus varieties of taro (about 87 remain).
>> Taro had many medicinal purposes. Stems were placed on the skin to soothe insect stings and stop bleeding from wounds. Poi alleviated indigestion, and, mixed with arrowroot, was a remedy for diarrhea. It made a poultice for sores, and when blended with ripe noni (Indian mulberry), was a topical treatment for boils.
>> The plant’s corm, leaves and stems contain calcium oxalate crystals, which irritate the throat and lining of the mouth. To break down the crystals, taro must be thoroughly cooked; otherwise, it is inedible. A 1-acre patch can yield 3 to 5 tons of taro annually.
>> Poi is easy to digest, making it a good choice for babies, elderly people and those who have allergies. Also, it’s low in sodium, has virtually no fat and is high in fiber, carbohydrates, potassium, manganese and vitamins E and B6. The leaves, akin to spinach, are a great source of calcium, iron, riboflavin and vitamins A and C. Adults ate about 5 pounds of poi daily.
>> The word ohana, meaning family, is derived from oha, the shoots or buds that grow from taro’s mature corm.
Maui farmers will be entering their best Hawaiian species of wetland and dryland kalo in the Queen’s Challenge Taro Competition, named for Queen Emma, wife of King Kamehameha IV. Beloved for her humanitarian efforts, most people aren’t aware that Queen Emma was an expert in kalo cultivation who used organic growing methods more than 150 years before they were widely accepted.
Safeguarded in Bishop Museum’s archives is an unpublished paper titled “Observations on Varieties and Culture of Taro,” which the Queen likely wrote in the 1860s. In it, she notes, “I have produced kalo which averaged twenty-two inches in length and the same in circumference when it was cultivated under my own eye, but far less in the same locality when the cultivation was somewhat neglected by my konohiki (steward).”
“The East Maui Taro Festival is a voice in support of kalo and traditional cultural practices,” Orr said. “There are not many opportunities these days for people to learn about kalo and meet the people who grow it. … The festival is a tremendous endeavor, but it always comes together beautifully, in the Hawaiian way — with aloha, lokahi, laulima and hana.”