A slight chill now cools the air, the first snows have graced the summit of Mauna Kea, and the familiar seasonal moisture has restored Hilo to its showery grandeur. Indeed the traditional season of Makahiki has arrived, heralding the coming of Lono — the deity of fertility, peace, gratitude and rejuvenation, embodied by the climatic shifts that bring our wet season. Makahiki also marks a time of gathering and celebration, mirrored by today’s “holiday season,” which for many in Hawaiʻi often means one thing: imu!
Imu, or subterranean ovens, have persisted as a customary cooking practice, and here in Hilo, as Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas feasts are being prepared, the smoky evidence of their use regularly fills the air.
From commercial “lūʻau” to backyard parties, most of us who have lived here have at least tasted the delicious outcomes of a successfully executed imu. Some of us may have even participated in family-specific and time-honored methods of imu cooking. But the chances are that for most of us, opportunities to reflect on how the process, architecture, and foods within an imu can serve as potent symbols to foster self-actualization, environmental kinship and sustainability, are few and far between.
On November 17th and 18th, the Hawaiian Studies 103: Ka Imu class gathered for two days at Hawaiʻi Community College to do just that. The class of 26 students — whose membership spanned several generations — included imu connoiseurs, who regularly practice the art at home, and neophytes, who had only ever heard of the traditional cooking method, alike. But as a collective, the diverse group jumped whole-heartedly into the experience of constructing an imu, and reflecting upon its culturally and personally significant symbolism.
Through the lens of the myth of Hina-i-ke-ahi, who sacrificed her physical form in an imu atop Hilo’s own Puʻu Hālaʻi in order manifest sustenance for her starving population, the class considered the image of imu as an icon of personal transformation and dedication to community revival that is echoed in our endemic landscape. Through careful consideration of the requisite imu materials and foods, and their significance as embodiments of traditional spiritual concepts, the imu was revealed to be an intricate map for personal reflection tied to environmental cycles. And the active perpetuation of a native practice such as imu highlighted the need for stewardship and sustainability of the natural resources involved.
As a grand finale, the class was bestowed with a final sunny day in which to successfully complete and enjoy the rewards of an imu well done, replete with ingredients brought by all, and achieved through the practice of laulima, cooperation: food, well flavored and cooked to perfection!
Mahalo to Hawaiʻi Community College, I Ola Hāloa Center for Hawaiʻi Lifestyles, the office of Planning, Operations and Maintenance, the Ka Imu class and all those that contributed to the success of this process. Lonoikamakahiki!
— Written by Ryan McCormack, Instructor/First Year Experience Coordinator, I Ola Hāloa Center for Hawaiʻi Life Styles