Occasionally, friends and acquaintances invite me to their homes to show me the proper way to prepare something I may have written or spoken about. They want me to taste the authentic flavors they have enjoyed for generations. They want me to smell their exotic spice blends.
This summer, I was invited by Leilani, a longtime reader of my past restaurant reviews, to her family home. I arrived with a sack of freshly picked lychee fruit.
The food in the house was overflowing, bountiful homemade foods brought forth by each treasured guest; juicy kalua pig, simmering stewpots of pork adobo, mountains of fried rice, oodles of noodles, sushi, smoky huli-huli chicken, chewy-sweet mochi, and sumptuous coconut, lilikoi and passion fruit creations. As I looked around, something else caught my eye.
The late afternoon sunlight illuminated Leilani’s tears. She smiled and motioned for me to sit beside her.
She thanked me for bringing her and her husband, Sam, a lot of joy over the years. She then added, “Ono kahi ‘ao lu’au ke aloha pu,” which literally means, “a little taro green is delicious when love is present.”
The Hawaiian phrase was beautiful, but when I tried to repeat it, I fumbled.
We both laughed. Hard. Then Leilani translated, “The plainest food is most delicious when accompanied by love.”
I was enchanted by the way she spoke such beautiful Hawaiian. Her gift of language inspired me. I again attempted to repeat her words, and with a straight face she said, “Perhaps you should stick to English, my dear,” which ignited a fit of laughter… for her.
The next 20 minutes were hilarious as I tried to form gorgeous sounds just as she had, but with little success. It felt like we had become the Hawaiian version of “Who’s on first.” When we finally caught our breath, Leilani looked me in the eye and thanked me profusely for snapping her out of her depression.
She then asked her grandson and nephew to play “Hanalei Moon,” and she began to dance the hula. Her movements were hypnotic and emotional, as if the goddess of hula lived inside of her. She invited all the guests to join her in this beautiful moment. We formed a circle around Leilani.
A month earlier, Leilani had lost her beloved husband of 53 years, Sam. This was his birthday party. That explained why she was so sad earlier in the evening. The song she had danced to, “Hanalei Moon,” was one of Sam’s favorites. With this hula, she shared something priceless, the living memory of 53 years of wedded joy.
Later, when I was ready to leave, Leilani’s son approached and thanked me for making his mom laugh as he hadn’t seen in a very long time. I was touched at how these people had cared, fed and accepted me. I began the day almost a complete stranger. I mentioned this to my host and thanked him for making my day special.
He humbly shrugged, as if this were just the way it is done in his family, and with the same captivating twinkle in his eye that his mother had while dancing, he responded, “One never knows the gifts a stranger brings.”
As I walked down the road to my car, I knew I had been the one who had been given a gift: a taste of true aloha.