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Shortly after Barak Obama became President, he took a vacation to Hawaii. The news story I read reported his family stopped on the way in from the airport for lunch before they ever reached the hotel. "Bet it was plate lunch," I said to my sister.

Years later, I found out that I was right. But we both knew at the time I had to be.

Every single one of my siblings stopped for plate lunch on our way in from the airport. The better-off siblings stop at higher end places, and I and my younger brothers went to a drive-in or a Kaimuki hole in the wall. But plate lunch was always necessary. We wouldn't have been home without it.

The first thing to understand about Hawaii is that local culture is foodie culture. Conversations in Hawaii focus around food the way conversations in the midwest focus around weather: when there's nothing else to talk about, food is always interesting. Grocery store lines would tell me how to identify instant saimin. A bank teller saw my stepmom's note for a payback for my investment in "ono chicken" and asked me why it was ono and how I made it. (Ono is best translated as "yummy.") I was there with a midwesterner who said, "Do Hawaiians ever talk about anything BUT food?" Of course we do. It's just how conversations start and end.

And plate lunch is the centerpiece of Hawaiian food.  I have watched my then-partner eat Iowa's greatest specialty, hot beef sandwich, which consists of slices of extremely well-done processed beef on wonderbread, topped with another slice of bread, than a scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy. Just the very thought of a mouthful made me ill. But that Iowan consumed it all, and then, after coming home from Hawaii, told horror stories for months about plate lunch.

That picture of plate lunch above is accurate, but not a great picture. It usually looked delicious. Plate lunch in my childhood consisted of a scoop of macaroni salad, two scoops of rice, and a piece of teriyaki, either chicken or beef. At restaurants bordering on health food places, they'd add a scoop of coleslaw.

As far as my family is concerned, plate lunch is soul food. Plate lunch is home. My Mainland-raised mother learned to cook teriyaki from our babysitter, and I still am grateful to that babysitter, for making plate lunch something I could and did eat at home -- not often, because my mother didn't like it all that much, but at least on my birthday. Except for the mac salad. My mom didn't know how to make mac salad.

And that was Hawaii for a haole. We ate potato salad once a year, generally -- my mother made it for the Advertiser's 4th of July picnic, along with fried chicken and stuffed eggs, because to her that's what you made for picnics. It wasn't a potluck, but being kids we could wander around begging, and satisfy ourselves with plate lunch, sushi and saimin, made by other people. (Sushi in those days didn't mean anything fancy or raw, unless you consider sashimi raw, which I don't. It meant a roll of rice made less sticky by being surrounded by seaweed or occasionally fried tofu, and the rice itself surrounding cheap vegetables and something very like canned tunafish, which might or might not have BEEN canned tunafish, or sashimi. Or nothing at all except rice, and a few scattered sesame seeds.)

I knew the origin of plate lunch the way I knew the origin of coconut milk: I watched it made. Teriyaki was ubiquitous -- and the lunch buses (mostly plate lunch was sold from converted buses when not actually in a little restaurant) could pile lots on and serve it quickly without further cooking, in a time before "fast food" had been officially invented. The rice was... well, everyone ate rice. That was the starch of choice. And you could make it in big pots and just scoop.

As for macaroni, as I said, potatoes were special food. Almost all food to Hawaii was shipped (in or out; pineapples were fairly scarce, because they were an export, and fresh vegetables were nearly unknown for those of us with haole moms, so except for exotic fruits like passionfruit and mangoes acquired from neighbors with too many trees, little was fresh). Potatoes are heavy; rice is much less heavy. Hawaii in those days had plenty of delicious water. (This of course is changing rapidly, thank you populations with swimming pools and of course corporate processing.) Rice and macaroni had in common that they were lighter to ship and then could be reconstituted.

Spam is popular now, but it wasn't then. If they'd had musubi, maybe we'd have liked it better. But in those days they didn't offer processed meats: they offered char siu pork and fish cake, which are frankly much tastier. At least to children of my generation.

I was having plate lunch today, having felt hungry for it, and started wondering about when the working class had its healthier cravings pulled away. Plate lunch is enormous carb-loading, and even in my childhood didn't skimp on the fat. But then, it was developed because workers -- first plantation, then industrial -- needed fast food to keep them working at physical labor without flagging.

Now that current thinking is that animals raised on grass and not given additional hormones are healthy to eat, and that cholesterol is definitely not the worst thing one could consume, you could view old-fashioned plate lunch as a relatively health, if calorie-dense, lunch. Not so with pizza or hamburgers as served to the masses.

I am still fairly convinced that "hot beef sandwich" could never be viewed as healthy, because I have heavy biases against gravy and Wonderbread I can't overcome. But southern vegetables cooked with pork, western refried beans and rice with lard -- all the working class staples -- really weren't that bad compared to mass marketed food. Perhaps they acquired a bad reputation just because it was workingclass people eating them?

In which case, I look forward to finding out, years from now, that potato chips and dip's lack of healthy nutrition is grossly overstated...

By the way, genuine recipes under the fold. For the Hawaiian-deprived...

Upon request, definitions:
haole = white
saimin = the best noodle soup ever, with I think a fish base, and good things on top. Popular enough you can buy a cheap version at Hawaiian McDonald's.
musubi: sushi rice, spam, and a strip of seaweed holding the first two things together.

Hawaiian Teriyaki
2 cps soy sauce
4 -6 cps sugar
nice big finger of ginger, peeled and cut small
as much garlic as you can manage

Stir all together until the sugar dissolves. It should be very sweet and pungent. Put in sliced beef or pieces of chicken. My modern innovation is to put it in freezer bags, which saves on the amount of marinade you need. Keep in fridge at least 24 hours, turning occasionally. This is cheating, but more true to its non Hawaiian origins is a marinade with an equal amount of water in it. Also less sugar.

Grill or bake in oven (with aluminum foil or parchment, unless you like permanently blackened broiler pans or have already wrecked yours) until the meat is cooked through. Heat some of the leftover marinade till boiling, especially if it's chicken-soaked, to avoid food poisoning. Serve on the side with rice and mac salad.

You can keep the rest of the marinade in the freezer and use several times; the salt preserves it pretty well.

Non fall-apart Rice
In a saucepan, pour white short grain rice in to the depth of your first knuckle. Rinse the rice, pour out the water, and then fill to the depth of your second knuckle. Stir. cover, bring to boil, turn down to simmer and simmer for 15 minutes. Serve with an ice cream scoop. (Unless you have a rice scoop.)

Macaroni salad
Four cups of cooked, cold macaroni
!/4 sweet onion, diced, or 1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 celery stalk, diced
Lots of mayonaise (I suspect Miracle Whip was involved in the small restaurants, but it wasn't allowed in our house)

Stir everything together. If you're REALLY nontraditional, you can add some grated carrot, and maybe a boiled egg. Or more celery. But 1 stalk is already a lot more vegetable than a restaurant was likely to have.)

Using a scoop, press hard against the side of the bowl so it stays in a round when you serve it.


What are your most typical home foods (not restaurants)?

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