UPDATED 5/23/11 12:45 p.m.
Today, few people in Hawaii continue to make poi the traditional way, using board and stone. But with the Legislature’s passage of the Senate Bill 101 , better known as the poi bill, what began as one man’s art has been transformed into a legal recognition of an ancient cultural tradition.
The story of the poi bill is largely the story of Daniel Anthony. He is the public face of the bill, which exempts the preparation of hand-pounded poi from certain Department of Health requirements regarding food safety, if certain conditions are met.
After passing both the House and Senate unanimously, it awaits the governor’s signature.
Anthony, 33, pounded 15,000 pounds of taro last year, which yields about 7,000 pounds of pa’i’ai. He ate about 1,000 pounds of it, gave away about 3,000 pounds and sold about 3,000 pounds — that is, before the Health Department caught up with him.
After that, he and a small group who practice traditional methods of pa’i’ai got together to talk about legalizing their poi.
Despite some struggles at the Legislature, the poi bill is the result.
“I believe this bill is one of the first victories for the taro community in a really long time,” Anthony told Civil Beat. “We need to continue to educate and pound away.”
For centuries, Hawaiian families have been making their own poi, but never on a commercial scale. Families mostly did it recreationally and give it to family and friends. The poi bill means that pa’i’ai makers may now sell their product. Anthony said he expects to see more pa’i’ai show up in grocery stores and restaurants.
“I grew up with the taro,” Anthony said. “I farmed it, but I didn’t really pay much attention to it at that time, but I’d always do it.”
By age 12, Anthony, who grew up in Waianae, began learning kui’ai, the traditional way of pounding pa’i’ai. Anthony, who is not Native Hawaiian, learned to love taro* from his step-grandfather, a Native Hawaiian who is the last kuleana taro farmer in Waianae Valley.
Around seven years ago, Anthony started to do kui’ai exhibitions at art shows. Eventually, he and a small group got requests to do taro pounding demonstrations. Including farmers markets, they performed at around 150 events or nearly three per week.
Anthony said besides the cultural aspect, there’s a big difference between poi made by factories as opposed by hand.
“When you hand pound taro, you lose 50 percent of it,” he added. “Poi made traditionally is the very best starch. It’s cleaned down and we’re only using the best part of the taro.”
In September of 2009, Anthony and his wife, Anuenue, decided to share this special product with others. They started a business called Mana Ai.
“There’s only good to this,” Anthony said. “Where is it that you can make food traditionally, be sustainable and pay rent?” Nobody has done this before in recent history, so it was exciting, yet there were a lot of unknowns.”
They began selling the poi to restaurants, farmers markets and on the side of the road in Papakolea on Oahu1. Their excitement about their venture grew — until they made it into the local newspaper.
“A photo of me was taken at the Ward Farmers Market and that’s where the Department of Health began to question what I was doing,” Anthony said. “What we were doing wasn’t done anywhere else, so there were no rules for us. So we stopped selling and focused on education.”
Shortly after, he and numerous community members began meeting once a week to talk about legalizing pa’i’ai. Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who’s is Anthony’s aunt, helped them introduce a bill.
“When I heard about what was happening, I asked him if we could do something,” she said. “He really was the inspiration behind the bill. He gathered a bunch of friends and family and the group, ‘Legalize Pa’i‘Ai’ was formed.”
From there, that group attended public hearings and even held a pa’i’ai demonstration at the Capitol on Hawaiian Caucus Day.
“We had unbelievable walls put before us,” Anthony said. “What helped us was the variety of people from all different areas of expertise. We had doctors, lawyers, young kids and of course, taro farmers giving us support.”
After a similar bill in the House died, Anthony said supporters put all their energies behind the Senate version.
“The House bill died because of misinformation and the fear of unknown,” Anthony added. “Basically one person with a poi mill was afraid of the unknown. But a lot of dialogue happened. We talked about the differences and made him realize that this bill gives a lot of opportunity to farmers like him.”
Anthony says it was this turning point that helped give the bill the final push it needed to pass.
“This is like the new frontier,” Anthony said. “It’s a real chance to farm the aina. This means economic stability. My traditional practice has a value, a way to be measured in society and not frowned upon anymore. It makes me happy that kids aren’t going to have to fight this again. But we still need land and water, still need a lot of things. Our work is not done, but this gives us less to do on the bucket list.”
Until the law is in effect, Anthony will continue to teach others what he has learned about the traditional way of making poi. In his possession, he has 15 stones and seven boards.
“I’ve made most of them,” he said. “For the stones and boards, I go and take care of the place that I gather them. It takes about eight hours each to shape one stone and a board.”
With the legalization of selling pa’i’ai so close to being realized, Anthony has big plans for the future.
“I want to turn my pa’i’ai business into a legit business,” he said. “I will borrow money to buy land or go to the Department of Agriculture and ask them if I could lease land. Right now I have two taro patches in Kahaluu and I also farm in my yard in Kaneohe.”
Anthony also has big plans for anyone else interested in his craft. His goal is to have every family in the state own a board and a stone, even if they’re not Native Hawaiian.
He hopes he and others interested in selling pa’i’ai should make a “comfortable” living from what they do.
“Ideally, we would like to have our own piece of land and just farm,” said Anthony’s wife, Anuenue. “I’d love to farm and do educational programs on the land. If it can sustain our family, I’d love to do this for a living. Our larger goal is to go out in the community and show other families that it really is possible.”
For Anthony, showing that it is possible took a lot of time and effort, but he feels cause is well worth it — especially if it means keeping an ancient Hawaiian custom alive.
“If you know it’s right and if they tell you no, inspire your friends to help,” he said. “Hopefully this inspires people.”
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Anthony’s step-grandfather taught him how to kui’ai.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Papakolea is on Oahu’s North Shore. Papakolea is in Honolulu, near Tantalus.