Michele Marchetti: Tastes of Hawaii
September 12, 2012 7:09 AM
by Michele Marchetti
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“Why do you read magazines about food?” my son asked recently. “Isn’t it enough to just eat food?”

“No, it is not,” I replied.

My food obsession perplexed my son once again when we made plans to visit the local farmer’s market on a recent trip to Kona, where my mother-in-law lives full time.

As far as my son was concerned, one week in this tropical paradise would not affect his eating habits (aside from the fact that he’d get to eat a lot more dessert). You can get yogurt, grilled chicken, and grapes in Hawaii, too; you’ll just pay a lot more money for them.

I, on the other hand, embraced everything local, from the lobster “hot dog” to the omnipresent Wow Farm organic Hawaii tomatoes to the Dragon Fruit (pictured), which requires a Google search to slay and looks considerably more remarkable than it tastes. (However, as is typically the case with any brightly colored fruit or vegetable, Dragon Fruit delivers a fierce dose of nutrients.)

But I was particularly excited about Kona coffee. According to the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, the coffee plant was first brought to Kona in the nineteenth century from Brazilian cuttings, although it didn’t become a viable crop until much later in that century. Today there are approximately 800 Kona coffee farms, with an average farm size of less than 5 acres.

About halfway into our trip I met Lily Kong Jr., farmer at Mama’s Kona Coffee. After sampling her delicious coffee, we ended up chatting for a half hour about local food. She filled me in on a community farmer’s market and—when I mentioned that I was missing out on the Sungold tomatoes in Pennsylvania—offered to bring me a bag of Kona tomatoes, picked from her coffee farm.

Lily is a fourth generation Kona coffee farmer in business with her mother, who has worked the family coffee land since she was a child. Kamehameha III, king of Hawaii from 1825 to 1854, gave Lily’s great-grandfather the land, which Lily and her mother regard as sacred. As Mama says, "Take care of the land and the land will give back. Be greedy with the land and the land will eat you up."

When we mistakenly drove to the wrong market, which had the cramped, hectic feel of Chinatown on a Saturday afternoon, Mama’s warning took on a literal meaning. It was summer in Hawaii, which meant that the only reasonable place to be was in the water. Instead, I was walking around a parking lot packed with vendors selling overpriced pineapple, feeling slightly nauseated from the pervious day’s local food experience: sampling cocktails made with fresh mint and basil.

Despite my offer to head back to my mother-in-law’s, my husband insisted that we get back in the car and find Lily’s market; he knew I’d be disappointed if we came home without a few bags of Mama’s Kona Coffee. I’m not big on souvenirs or t-shirts, but it doesn’t feel like vacation if I can’t unpack a taste of whatever I just left behind.

Twenty minutes later we found the real market, where Lily greeted me with a warm smile, bags of coffee, macadamia nuts—and a bag of her local tomatoes.

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