Farm to Table, Hawaii-style

If a picture is worth a thousand words, an exquisite setting for a meal must be worth a thousand bites.

While our recent meal on the North Shore of O’ahu didn’t consist of that many forkfuls of food, each one was flavorsome and delicious—framed by a stunning backdrop of the jagged Waialae Mountains, bordered at the edges with palm fronds and banana trees. Outdoors on an organic farm, seated in an open air outbuilding with thatched roof, we shared the company of sixteen other diners in a tasty tribute to fresh, local food and sustainability.

We had been invited to the dinner by a friend who knew that I would be keen on such an event. Indeed, with an interest in fresh, organic food and sustainability issues, I’ve long wanted to attend just such a gathering (which are growing in popularity across the nation) but my options in Europe and Hawai‛i have been severely limited.

I recall that about a year ago, while I was living on Maui, there was a farm-to-table event hosted on one of the beaches in Wailea at sunset. It promised to be a glamourous affair with long white tables set on the sand, a Champagne reception with entertainment, over a hundred people present, and presided over by a popular chef on the island. Food was coming from several different local farms, while proceeds of the event were going to a local culinary program (or perhaps the local Slow Food chapter, I can’t quite remember). In typical Maui style, tickets were $150 apiece—more than I wanted to spend at the time, especially with my beloved away and no one to go with. I admit that I can be very fond of ‘posh’ but, honestly, it all seemed a bit high brow for my taste. A fab foodie event rather than a farm fête.

Though it was also a fundraiser, our dinner on the North Shore farm was decidedly a low key affair (with a reasonable price tag to match). Though the tables had been set with nice farm2tablecloths, linens, and glassware, we sat on folding metal or plastic chairs. Guests were invited to bring their own wine (or alcoholic beverage of choice). No Champagne reception; no celebrity chef. From the camp-style kitchen shielded by a tent canopy, our meal was prepared by a longtime friend of the farmer, assisted by two other individuals. With no attempts at pretense, we were dining in a ‘down home’ manner just a few feet from where most of the meal’s ingredients had been grown. Whatever didn’t originate on the farm was sourced as nearby as possible, including the main course of opakapaka—a deep water, pink snapper—caught by a local fisherman.

The farm sells its organic produce at a couple of windward-side farmers markets, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) home-delivery program, as well as Whole Foods Market. The farm’s proprietor, Mark, is working to raise money to build a certified kitchen so that they might begin to produce an array of products—jams, pesto, etc—beyond their current offerings. To do so, they need a proper kitchen that can be inspected. Last week’s dinner was their first public fundraising event, with the idea that other farm-to-table dinners will follow on a monthly basis until their goal is reached.

Not only was I happy to support their cause but I was thrilled to be out of the city, relaxing and dining amid the tropical beauty of the North Shore—an area that remains largely agricultural and ‘undeveloped’ (by commercial standards), and pleasantly free of large hotels. In the winter when the waves are high, it’s also a mecca for world class surfers (and the oceanside road is clogged with onlookers).

Departing Honolulu and heading north past the military bases, I could feel my body begin to relax as the landscape shifted. Even in the car, one senses an energetic shift in the land itself as you head to the North Shore—more open, less populated, and a bit of ‘old Hawaii’. I had brought along a book to read aloud to my partner on the hour drive, but the afternoon light show on the cloud-draped Waialae Mountains was so captivating that I soon laid the memoir aside and we both focused on the exquisite scenery, instead.

Guests had been invited to arrive an hour before dinner, to meet farmer Mark and some of his crew (chickens included), mingle socially, and stroll the land. No sooner had I stepped out of the car and drawn a deep breath, than my sandals were kicked off and I was barefoot. Perfect. Feet and soul equally happy to be on the earth—savoring the essential connection between soil and soul. I walked the farm in bare feet, toes wriggling down into the dry red, iron-rich dirt, and all my senses open wide.

The food at dinner was simple, fresh, and flavorsome; a meal that unfolded over a couple of hours as the sun sank into the welcoming blue arms of the Pacific. Facing the challenge of a camp kitchen, the cook and her two helpers worked feverishly to get each course prepared, plated and served—a grilled watermelon gazpacho with daikon radish and ancho chile; crostini topped with grilled escarole and green olive tapenade; a main course of pan-seared opakapaka with a lilikoi (passionfruit) vanilla sauce and sweet potato cakes, sauteed collard greens alongside; tequila lime bars with a dollop of whipped cream for dessert. We sat with our friend and her companion, sipping lemonade or wine, catching up and telling stories, while every so often halting conversation simply to marvel at the shifting light on the mountains or comment on the sweetly damp scent of the air as dusk descended.

Land in Hawaii is hideously expensive; a case of prime real estate always in demand yet only a finite amount available. A few years ago, Mark managed to buy a six-acre plot when it came up for sale—one of three agricultural parcels available as part of a larger sale of land held by the Dole Company (the rest sold to a developer). He realized the importance of keeping the land for agriculture rather than to let it become yet another site for oversize homes on acreage for the wealthy. Then he plunged into farming.

I truly respect those who have chosen to become farmers in a materialistic society such as ours (and a steadily increasing portion of the world). It’s a life of hard work, financial risk, and very little monetary gain—especially on a small scale—yet one that offers its own inestimable rewards. A friend of mine in New Mexico whom I deeply admire on many levels, left the high-paying, high-tech programming world and began raising organic tomatoes in an ecologically sustainable greenhouse (rainwater catchments, solar electricity, etc). That was more than fifteen years ago and he’s never looked back. He is a hero of mine.

Nature sings the same song as the soul. I’ve often daydreamed about becoming a smalltime, organic farmer and beekeeper; a quiet, honest way of life that nourishes body and soul. As opposed to industrialized work that has become thoughtless and skill-less, working the land—especially when done in a sustainable, conscious way—can yield a simple dignity that feeds the spirit. Not the least of its satisfactions is the sense of being something other than a consumer—being a producer, instead.

The industrialization of labor has long ago shifted us from ‘making’ to ‘doing’, and sadly the vast majority of our modern work degrades body, mind, and soul. Enmeshed in a consumer economy, most of us won’t have the opportunity or choose to become something other than consumers (our entire, flimsy, “paper economy” is built upon it). Yet we can make conscious decisions around consumption, reducing, reusing, and recycling. When we purchase food that was grown locally, we make choices that promote true sustainability—while directly supporting those who are supporting us. Ultimately, the only sort of sustainable economy is a local one.

Among other key traits, Soul Artists are people who seek to offer something of value to the world, not merely for financial gain but because their soul has a gift that must be shared. The soul thrives when it creates. We each have a Giveaway to offer the world; for an awakened soul, the personal ultimately becomes transpersonal. Certainly, anyone who chooses to go back to the land and take up the mantle of organic farming is a Soul Artist of sorts. To farm with integrity is a noble calling. Here’s to you North Shore Mark, and New Mexico Paul, and UK Sara, and countless, unsung others.

As I sat with my partner and new acquaintances under the thatched roof, reveling in the evening’s gilded light and sense of timeless, tranquil grace, I felt a deep sense of gratitude—for Mark and his crew, for the cook and her assistants, for the grace of the table, for the beautiful evening sky, and for the land itself. I could feel an expansion of my heart field, wide as the bountiful field next to which we sat and scattered with sparkling diamonds like the evening sky.

Gentle reader, even if you aren’t able to have a direct connection with the land or persons who grew your food (even a small percentage of it)—most of us don’t—I hope that you can still seek out local choices that benefit farmer, earth, and your body. Buy local. Buy organic (the bees and pollinators-under-siege will thank you). Bless the food that’s on your plate and celebrate the grace of the table.

And as a wise mentor taught me, always share the very best of what you have.

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