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Room For Us All: Thursday Dinner

[Editor’s note: The following is adapted from the introduction of Thursday’s dinner at Hutchmoot 2017.]

Before we eat dinner tonight, I must admit something to you. Truth will always taste better, and so I must make a confession.

I’ve always felt different here at Hutchmoot, on the outside, perhaps, if you’d like to use that metaphor. I’m not a Southerner. I’m from a somewhat peculiar denomination of Christianity. I’m don’t homeschool my kids. I don’t have kids. I’m not white, and perhaps the most offensive, especially to Pete Peterson (who, in fact, pointed out this quirk to me, just last week), I have still not watched Star Wars. Yes, still, even after all these years.

So when last year, I was asked to think of something “different” to serve for dinner on Friday night, I want to admit I went into it with just the smallest amount of spite. It’s also true, that there was love and care in that meal, in those bites of noodles and vegetables. The story I told you about my grandfather making me bowls of hot ramen is real. The adorable Japanese women at church taking care of me with mountains of pickled vegetables is true. Those things really did happen. I did want you to enjoy your food. But it is also true that there was a little bravado, a little misplaced showmanship, a little “I’ll show them what different is,” a little bitterness mixed in to the offering. And yes, a little bit of bitterness, like in a richly roasted cup of coffee or immaculate square of dark chocolate can make our tastebuds sing. Too much, however, is sure to leave our palates dry and dissatisfied.

So what then, as I have been entrusted with this gift of making bread for us to break together?

If I am to take a break from ruminating on how different we all are, then I would have to imagine, how we are all so wholly . . . the same.

I am a man named after my grandfathers. Cal after my grandfather Calixto, the one who made me all that ramen, and John after my father’s father. He died three years before I was born, and so I never got to meet grandpa John. And since last year’s dinner was inspired by grandpa Calixto, and since the stories food tells are such personal things. I thought I may take a hand at a meal inspired by my other namesake.

Still, considering that I was also trying to empty my cup of bitterness, I simply couldn’t fathom what a little old brown Asian man from Hawaii has in common with so many of my white Southern Christian counterparts, dare I say, friends.

“He worked on a plantation.” It was honestly the first thing that came to mind, a plantation owned by a Southerner, Samuel Thomas Alexander, son of missionary and Kentuckian, William Patterson Alexander, who started C&H sugar with his childhood friend, Henry Baldwin in 1906.

But the earlier boom of Hawaii’s sugar industry coincided with America’s Civil War in the 1860’s, and so the model that was followed by sugar plantations in the Caribbean that used slave labor could no longer safely be copied. By the hundreds of thousands, Asian emigrants from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines began immigrating to Hawaii.

And so came grandpa John.

He was an irrigation man whose fields yielded more than those around his, and to reflect his hard work, his pay was raised to $1.25 a day . . . for 10 hour days in the field, 6 days a week. He and my grandmother Eulogia raised 15 children on that wage.

To control so many foreign workers, plantation owners set up a caste system. Japanese workers got paid more than Chinese workers, who got paid more than Filipino workers, and each racial group was segregated in their own plantation villages, each following a different (mostly unspoken) set of standards for decorum.

The Japanese were often allowed to gamble, for instance. The Chinese were not. All Asiatics could only be laborers in the plantations, and were simply categorized as skilled or unskilled. Portuguese immigrants, on the other hand, could be Overseers, but though they were European were not considered white enough to be caucasian, and could not apply to be Field Bosses or any form of management.

The point was for them to not get along.

But then lunch came, and the thing they all had in common was food. Often too poor for fresh fruit or vegetables, lunch was usually rice and a little left over meat from last night’s dinner. They passed around the dishes their wives had made and slowly, over plates of something delicious, they began to appreciate each other’s differences.

Today, the tradition is known as the Hawaiian Plate Lunch—Korean Kim Chee, Teriyaki Chicken from Japan, Filipino Lumpia, Chinese Char Sui, Portuguese Malasadas. In the ’40s, when WWII was in full swing, Spam and macaroni and potato salad were added to the traditional lexicon, plucked from the rations sent to feed the thousands of American soldiers occupying the islands—a myriad of tastes from seemingly disparate cultures creating something new.

Tonight we eat plate lunch:

Kahlua Pork Sandwiches, Sunomono Cucumbers, Roasted Lomi Lomi Tomatoes, my dad’s potato salad recipe, and even hummingbird cake, to honor what the South can do with ingredients like coconut and pineapple.

Hutchmoot is getting bigger, and the rabbit room is changing. There are more faces, new faces, and so as we widen the circle and break bread together, may we be reminded that yes, we can be friends, that the sum of our parts is more delicious than any one ingredient alone, and that there is room at the table for us all.


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