COURTESY KAUAI COCONUT FESTIVAL
All things coconut will be celebrated on Kauai Oct. 6 and 7 at the annual Kauai Coconut Festival.
Kauai fest revolves around coconuts
An old Hawaiian riddle goes, "Three walls and you reach water." The answer? The coconut, the three "walls" being the husk, shell and meat that surround its water, which the Hawaiians deemed the purest form of liquid because it never touched the ground.
Contrary to popular belief, the coconut is not native to Hawaii; it was one of two dozen "canoe plants" the first Polynesian settlers brought to the islands more than 1,500 years ago for food, shelter, tools, textiles, medicine and religious purposes.
The coconut ranked among the most versatile of those plants. It was, of course, edible. In addition, the early Hawaiians carved drums, canoes and food containers from its trunk. They plaited brooms, baskets, fans and toys from its leaves. The leaflets' midribs made fine brooms, needles, shrimp snares, instruments similar to Jew's harps, and rods to hold kukui nuts, which were burned for light and warmth.
The Hawaiians wove coconut husk fibers into strainers and strong cord to build houses, lash together canoe parts, and weave nets and fishing lines. To make fire, they ignited dry fibers with a smoldering hau tree stick, then transferred the flame to wood.
Coconut shells became rattles and cups, and coconut oil was added to tapa dyes to deepen and preserve their hues.
On Oct. 6 and 7, the 11th annual Kauai Coconut Festival will celebrate anything and everything related to the ubiquitous coconut. It's fitting that the event is held at Kapaa Beach Park in the lush eastern region of Kauai, which is known as the Royal Coconut Coast.
In addition to several heiau (temples), this sacred area harbors stones called Pohakuhoohanau, where high-ranking women from throughout the islands gave birth centuries ago.
Westerners who settled here in the 19th century planted sugar cane, rice, pineapple and coconut, the latter in hopes that copra would be a viable crop. The hundreds of coconut trees that line the 7-mile stretch of Kuhio Highway from Wailua to Kapaa are what remain of the old plantations.
COURTESY KAUAI COCONUT FESTIVAL
The annual Kauai Coconut Festival, established in 1997, includes a coconut cream pie-eating contest, coconut checkers, coconut painting and more under 15 food, craft and entertainment tents.
Spearheaded by the Kapaa Business Association, the Kauai Coconut Festival has become one of the island's biggest annual events. It's the brainchild of Bob Bartolo, a New Jersey native who in 1995 was a new member of KBA.
At a meeting back then, talk revolved around ways to promote East Kauai. Recalled Bartolo, "I remember saying, 'The coconut is part of our area's history, and we're called the Royal Coconut Coast, so why don't we create a Coconut Festival?' Everyone loved the idea!"
The inaugural festival was held in 1997. "All we had were three craft tents, three food tents, one cultural activities tent, a petting zoo, coconut bowling using Pepsi bottles, and a cooking demonstration and contest," said Bartolo. "Two thousand people came."
This year, 15 food, craft and entertainment tents will be erected, and 5,000 people are expected to enjoy additional offerings such as coconut checkers using the field as a giant board; coconut cream pie-eating contests; coconut painting; children's activities, from modern dance to creating coconut art; and displays and demonstrations showing the wide array of products made from the coconut, including hats, jewelry, postcards and dolls.
Molly Watson, food editor for Sunset magazine, will be judging and helping Bartolo emcee the cooking events.
In 2003 the Food Network featured the festival on its "All-American Festivals" show. Coincidentally, that was the year Bartolo's Vietnamese Coconut Lemongrass Chicken won first place in the cooking contest.
A perennial favorite is the show presented by Vili Fehoko (also known as Vili the Warrior, mascot at University of Hawaii football games); Kapeneta Teo-Tafiti, known as Kap, who hails from Savaii, the largest island in Western Samoa; and other entertainers from Oahu.
"They put on a fantastic show," said Bartolo. "Kap climbs a coconut tree, husks and cracks a coconut open in seconds, and shows the audience how to make fire with fibers from the coconut's husk."
When Bartolo moved to Kauai in 1988, he didn't know much about the coconut. By joining more than 100 other volunteers to create the festival, he's developed a deep appreciation for its role in the everyday life of the Hawaiians and can now rattle off dozens of interesting tidbits about it.
"The festival is an opportunity for people to take a break from their busy lives and enjoy being a tourist on our aina (land)," said Bartolo. "It's amazing how much insight we can gain into Hawaiian traditions through the common coconut!"
Know your coconut
» The tree can live for more than a century and grow 100 feet tall.
» It bears fruit around its sixth year, and does so every month thereafter until about its 25th year, when production starts to decline.
» Even after a coconut has floated at sea for months, its seeds can germinate if its protective husk remains intact.
» Hawaii has relatively few coconut palms compared with Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti and other southern neighbors. Some areas in our islands are too cool for the tree to thrive.
» Only two coconut palm varieties, niu hiwa and niu lelo, were established in Hawaii, compared with, for example, dozens in Tahiti.
» In ancient times the coconut tree was revered as the body of the god Ku; thus, only men could plant it. It was forbidden to women as food, although they could use it for other purposes.
» The early Hawaiians didn't consider coconut an important food source, but they valued its water (which only men could drink) on long voyages when fresh water wasn't available.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.