When dancers hit the stage at the Merrie Monarch Festival, it’s a feast for our aesthetic sensibilities. But those poetic moments only arise after countless hours of hard work. It takes sweat to create art.
Likewise, feeding those dancers requires practicality. Forget poetry and think spreadsheets.
You can never be too organized, and Ken Ordenstein, meal honcho for Halau Mohala ‘Ilima, kumu hula Mapuana de Silva’s troupe, has it down to a science.
“The size of our group ranges from a low of 35 to a high of 85,” he said of the dancers, musicians, family and support crew that trek to Hilo each year. “We just plug in the numbers, and it tells us what we need.”
That would be the spreadsheet that Ordenstein refers to like a bible for feeding the entourage.
No matter the size, Ordenstein and “a really good volunteer crew” of four to eight are responsible for delivering daily breakfast and lunch to the group, which stays at a hotel. (Dinners are purchased.)
The menu is standard from year to year. On the morning lineup is some combination of boiled eggs, minimuffins, raisin bread toast, Cheerios, fresh fruit, milk and juice. Lunches are usually “Halau Tuna,” aka tuna salad sandwiches, Cheetos and either Mint Oreos, Nutter Butter or Vanilla Wafer cookies.
“Halau Tuna is the dancers’ preference,” said de Silva. “It has a certain taste on halau trips that cannot be replicated elsewhere.”
Cheetos are another must-have. “It’s a staple they look forward to, and it’s part of the fun to have their favorite food.”
During Merrie Monarch it’s routine for the group to eat lunch while watching tapes of the previous night’s performance. Preparing meals saves not just money, but time. This is especially important because the kumu requires her dancers to take a two- to three-hour nap each day.
To ensure that meal planning is streamlined from year to year, Ordenstein keeps meticulous notes.
“Last year we fed 38 people, a relatively small group, four breakfasts and three lunches,” he recited as he perused a spreadsheet on file.
“Our shopping list included 17 heads of butter leaf lettuce; 17 medium tomatoes; 55 bunches of celery; 55 5-ounce cans of Coral tuna, it must be Coral; six 30-ounce bottles of mayonnaise, gotta be Best Foods, and not light. We also bought 13 packages of cookies and 12 9.75-ounce bags of Cheetos that must be puffed; 13 cases of Diet Pepsi, Pepsi and Hawaiian Sun juices; and 15 cases of water.”
Add to that breakfast cereal, milk and juice, and six dozen eggs.
There’s protocol to follow as well, developed over the years since de Silva’s halau began competing in 1979.
“The first year, I didn’t know anything, and we spent a lot of money on food,” she said. “We’re good friends with the folks at KTA (Super Stores), so now we go over our numbers and order the food ahead of time. When we get to Hilo, we stop by the store, and everything is boxed and ready for pickup.”
Each night, Ordenstein and his food crew meet to go over the following day’s duties. Every volunteer has a job, whether it’s “sous-chef,” “banquet captain” or “commissary person.”
“Generally, the last thing we do when we come back from competition is meet and post the menu for the next day: time, where the meal will be, call time for workers,” Ordenstein said.
“We keep a log to analyze eating patterns so we can make adjustments for next year’s Merrie Monarch.”
Ordenstein, himself a member of halau Ka Pa Hula Hawaii, has helped de Silva for 13 years. The two met when their halau performed together in New Caledonia in 2000 for the Festival of Pacific Arts.
“She’s very organized as far as traveling is concerned. We complement each other that way,” he said.
Spreadsheets are also the order of the day for feeding Halau Hula ‘O Kawaili‘ula, Chinky Mahoe’s troupe. Though Mahoe isn’t quite as meticulous as de Silva, perhaps that’s due to the fact that it’s his family — wife Linda and various aunts and uncles — who handle cooking duties.
Keeping a consistent menu from year to year keeps things simpler, he says, and their mainstays include roast turkey and roast beef, kalua pig, shoyu chicken and ham.
Mahoe’s full halau has been competing since 1983, and he says that in the early years they cooked on hotel balconies with propane burners. “The hotels turned their heads and allowed us to do so,” he recalled. “We brought costumes in trunks, distributed the costumes and used the trunks as buffet lines.”
Today the group stays at Kilauea Military Camp in Volcanoes National Park, and it now has access to a kitchen. But Linda Mahoe works ahead, roasting turkeys and cooking kalua pork at home, then freezing the dishes.
For all that precooking, the couple still takes boxes of pots, pans and utensils to Hilo for preparing the rest of the meals. Cooks wake as early as 5:30 a.m., as the dancers sometimes rise at 7 a.m. to practice.
Mahoe’s entourage is much smaller than de Silva’s.
“Families are not allowed to come to the camp until after the competition. We’re busy and I don’t like distractions,” he said.
On competition days, dancers eat a big, late lunch, then snack at the festival if they get hungry.
“But the excitement gets the adrenaline going, and many of them don’t want to eat,” Mahoe said.
When the dancing is over, however, “the boys, especially, will get hungry.” That’s when leftover roast beef and ham come in handy to make hearty sandwiches.
Mahoe says he lets them eat as much as they want.
“They’re not going to gain 10 pounds during the days of competition,” he said. “By that point they’re practicing day and night.”
And giving their all is important.
Over the three decades Mahoe’s halau has competed, he’s garnered food donations from such businesses as Rocky Road Products and Oroweat.
“I try to get as many donations as I can so the families can afford the trip,” he said. “And folks do support our halau — anything for the kids. … So it’s important to do well.”