Published: July 14th 2008March 3rd 2008
ORIGIN OF OUR EVENT
While traveling in Hawaii I was couchsurfing with a lady on the island of Kauai. She introduced me to some people who were cooking meat the traditional Pacific Islander style, which is burying the meat underground with hot rocks and banana leaves. I being the consummate traditionalist (probably not very true), accepted the invitation to participate in the event. These folks do it every Thanksgiving. A link to my blog with pictures of that event follows: http://www.travelblog.org/North-America/United-States/Hawaii/blog-236494.html
I was amazed by the tenderness and flavor of the end result and decided to try and drum up support with the folks back home for an Imu oven experience of our own. I suggested our annual 4th of July celebration. They were an easy sell. Although when it became “Go Time” approximately a week prior to the 4th, apprehension became widespread. The questions were starting to flow like a class 5 rapid and people were concerned about ruining this much pork. Include me in this group of worriers. If this turned out bad, I would be harassed by these folks until the day they covered me, with dirt.
IT IS GO TIME!
July 2, 2008
- The Imu cooking process is easy. You just heat up some rocks, throw in some meat, cover it with dirt, dig it up the next day and eat the most succulent, tender meat you have ever eaten. Piece of cake or should I say a tender piece of meat! Unfortunately though, the attention is in the details. First couple of hurdles encountered, how do I get my hands on stuff like banana leaves, Ti leaves, the appropriate high temperature rocks and salt. I was warned in Hawaii that you needed special rocks so they do not explode and the Hawaiians obtained salt from nearby salt ponds. My cousin, Rod was working in St. Louis and suggested we try some brick cobblestones that he could pick up at work. Dad and I tried the cobblestones about a week before the 4th and they didn’t explode which was good, but the extreme heat made them crumble into smaller pieces. We also threw in a couple modern bricks assuming they would work, since they had been fired before when made and sure enough they worked fine. There was something glamorous about using the cobblestones though, from the old cobblestone streets that have
Mitch making sure the whole is big enough for the pig.
When asked to put an apple in his mouth he wouldn't do it and said that would be weird.
probably been the road for many a horse and buggy. We used mostly these cobblestones supplemented with a few conventional bricks. The cobblestones were bigger and therefore would hold more heat, but after they broke into smaller pieces they were a similar volume to the conventional bricks. I think conventional bricks would have worked as well.
I didn’t intend on Uncle Bernie supplying a pig, as I planned on buying chunks of pork from a store, but before I knew what happened, he had shipped a hog to be processed. Uncle Bernie is a pig farmer. Big thanks’ goes out to Uncle Bernie for supplying the 270 pound pig! I know Uncle Bernie had his concerns as well, as he was content with how pork turned out by cooking it the old fashioned way. He, along with a lot of us, wondered, why change a good thing? What is there to be gained? I had tasted the best pork ever in Hawaii and knew the potential. I just didn’t know if we could recreate the flavor in the Midwest and with many substituted items. I was nervous as well!
I went to the meat processing place
Pretty as a Picture.
Abbey and Asher probably talking about boys or maybe about taking a trip to Antartica ?!
and asked that they chunk the shoulders and hams into about 5 lb portions of meat. The middle section of the hog we had made into pork chops, bacon and ribs. No reason to put the best meat in the Imu oven. Besides we had plenty of meat from the shoulders and ham. We picked up the meat on July 2nd and refrigerated it that night. My mom had also picked up a turkey and I got some chicken wire. Mom ordered a bundle of Ti (pronounced Tee) leaves from a local florist. I did not think to tell Mom how many we needed, but she said she ordered a bundle, which sounded like a lot to me. It turns out a bundle of Ti leaves is 10 leaves. We needed about a 100. These leaves were over a $1 a piece, which is rather expensive for the quantity we needed. I called all over the St. Louis area, but could only find some for around $0.80 a piece at a farmer’s market. This was too much money, we would have to do with out. Next year I am going to look into growing our own plants. Maybe plant them
A Mother Daughter Moment
Mom still knows something. In a few years mom will not know anything and then again several years after that she will be smart again..
in the Spring and see if they will be mature enough to use come July 4th. The same thing for a Banana Tree. Assuming of course everyone wants to do it again. I know I do, but I am not normal!
JULY 3, 2008
It is the day of event and Dad is getting anxious or hungry, still not sure. He was saying we have a lot to do today. He was very ill as well, which ended up putting him in the hospital 3 days after this event. This may have compounded his anxiousness. Or was it the food that put him in the hospital? There really is not all that much to do with regards to the Imu Oven, but whenever company is coming it gets a little crazy more so from the maternal side. The infamous saying, “We are never going to make it,” frequently came up throughout the day. But low and behold we always make it! Mom was barking out orders and we were for the most part obeying, not always in a timely manner, but obeying nonetheless. Mom had a wedding cake to decorate in addition to her house cleaning preparation so
Midwest Banana Leaves
The Pacific Islanders use Banana Leaves. In the Midwest we use corn stalks.
her anxiety was high.
I had originally suggested people start arriving around 6 pm on the night of the 3rd, but when doing the math realized a later start made more since, as we really only wanted the meat to cook for 10 hours and did not want to dig it up too early in the morning. We had to leave time for Dad to get his morning coffee at the restaurant. That means if we bury the meat at 9 pm, we would have to dig it up at 7 am and that would be a little early. A couple people arrived at 6 pm, but we kind of just tied up some loose ends (drank some beer) until 7 pm at which time we started the fire. We had dug the hole about a week earlier. The size of the hole was about 2 feet deep, 4 feet wide and 5 foot long. The shape of the hole was a result of the Bobcat bucket, which was used to dig it. We decided to line the hole with bricks, thinking that would be something else to help provide heat for the cooking, in addition to the
Superhero wood splitting speed.
cobblestones and other bricks that would provide the main source of heat. I cut the corn stalks, which we used in lieu of the banana leaves, around 3 pm that afternoon and had half of thems with the bottom portion of the stalk soaking in a tub of water. In the same tub we had burlap sacks soaking in water as well.
The wood was elm and had been dried for more than a year. I was not getting too stressed about the type of wood to be used. We had considered getting some hickory for flavoring and throwing that on the coals just prior to putting the meat on, but decided we did not want everything smoky flavored and it seemed like an all or nothing proposition. We went with the nothing. With the aluminum foil wrapped around the meat, I was not sure if any of the smoke would actually get into the meat anyway. After the fire was cranked up for about 30 minutes we started putting the rocks and bricks on the fire. We stacked the wood on end which provided a good surface for the rocks and bricks to be placed. After about
an hour or so the bricks began to fall inward onto the hot coals. It was interesting to note that after the rocks were on the fire for a while the rocks turned sooty black and then went back to a color more similar to their original color.
We planned to heat the rocks for about 2.5 hours before putting the meat on, so after about an hour of heating the rocks, we started preparing the meat. I looked at my pictures from Hawaii and had noticed, they put the turkey in the same package with pork. We decided to do the same even though some apprehension was voiced amongst the elder ranks. A little granular salt was added and that was it for the spices. We did not over do it with the salt, as if you over salt something it is hard to remove the salt from the meat, but you can always add more salt. Don’t you just love blatant statements of the obvious. I may have a future in sports announcing. You have to keep your eye on the ball to hit it!
We also wrapped up a beef roast to see
how that would turn out. Mostly pork, a turkey and a beef roast hit the coals. Two of the packages containing all pork received the Ti leaves and the remaining packages contained no Ti leaves. We wondered if we would notice a flavor difference in the meat. The meat was wrapped with aluminum foil and chicken wire wrapped around everything. Some corn stalk leaves were placed inside the chicken wire. Not sure if that is necessary, but they put Ti leaves there in Hawaii, so we put our substitute, corn leaves. The meat was now ready for the fire!
After 2.5 hours of heating the rocks, we decided it was time to “rock” so a conference was called. We had a quite large staff. The time constraints were discussed. We had approximately 30 minutes to have the meat covered with dirt. The men were divided into the following crews: unburned wood removal crew, corn stalk placement crew, meat placement crew, burlap sacks placement crew and the dirt placement crew. Again the success of this operation was dependent on how quickly we were able to cover everything with dirt. Tensions were high, well not exactly as there had been
enough beer consumed to keep everyone somewhat relaxed. I had purposely moderated my drinking and quit drinking completely an hour earlier, as I felt responsible for the outcome of this project and had the most too lose, which was family honor and unwantingly would gain continual harassment for many years to come.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
We broke huddle with a 1, 2, 3 ALOHA and the wood removal crew went to work. It was obvious that this fire was very hot and I noticed it to be hotter than the one they had in Hawaii. I was concerned that we might burn the meat, so we removed some of the nearly molten coals. After a couple shovels of the coals were removed, we spread out the rocks flatly across the bottom of the hole. The corn stalk crew went to work. They started putting the freshly cut stalks onto the fire and steam immediately rose. The corn stalks became depleted quickly and I was concerned I may had not cut enough. After a good bedding of corn stalks were resting on the hot coals, it was time for the meat. The meat crew went into action and placed
the meat on top of the corn stalks. The meat packets nearly covered the entire surface of the corn stalks. It was good the hole was as big as it was. After the meat was placed the corn stalk crew went back into action covering the meat with more corn stalks. I then realized I should have cut more corn stalks so I went into action and grabbed the machete and ran into dad’s garden and took out about 20 of his sweet corn stalks and we threw them into the pit. It was brutal thinking we just sacrificed about 30 ears of sweet corn but I had honor and many years of harassment at stake. You can see my motivation. The extra corn stalks appeared to have helped. The burlap sack crew went into action and removed the wet burlap sacks from the tub of water and applied them over the corn stalks. The dirt crew went to work and they began covering the burlap sacks with between 4 and 6 inches of soil. I looked at my watch and it had been 15 minutes since the start of the process. We had done the work in record time.
I commend the crews!
We sat around and drank beer and talked the rest of the evening with no one really knowing how things would turn out the next morning. We were in Carpe Diem mode. No reason to worry about something that is out of your control at that point. The kids continued to roast marshmallows on the coals and non-burned wood which we had taken from the pit. The next couple of hours we would often see steam coming from the dirt and we threw more dirt on top of each spot from which the steam rose. At the end of the night, a little before midnight, there was no steam rising and we covered the entire area with plastic, primarily encase it rained. It had rained a lot earlier in the night and there was a chance of rain that night as well.
The kids and I spent the night sleeping in tents near the Imu Oven. In Hawaii they said they did not have any problems with animals getting into the food, so I was not overly concerned here either, but I just thought camping might be fun. At about 12:30am the
boys in the tent with me got out and I heard one of them say, “Hey, lets build a fire.” I had to be the bad guy at that point, and told them in no uncertain terms, that it was time for bed. They grudgingly came to bed. The girls in the other tent were content inside the confines of their tent and slept like princesses dreaming of kissing hogs, I mean frogs.
As I lay there in my sleeping bag, before heading off into the netherworld, I though back on the night. I was content with how things went but really had no idea what we would pull out of the hole the next morning. Really the only problem we had was with our photographer, Beth. I was really disappointed in her performance and just hoped she would redeem herself the next day. Good night after a very busy day! Mom, we made it!
July 4, 2008
Happy Independence Day! We made it through the night with no animal attacks or new fires. We did lose one person in our tent though. I was afraid a coyote might have dragged Tony into the forest, but
thankfully he had just gotten cold about 3 am and went into the house and slept on the couch. He was couchsurfing with Mom and Dad!
People started arriving around 8am and even a couple people that I did not expect had gotten word of the event and stopped by. I was waiting for our photographer Beth to show up so we could properly document the unveiling, but after waiting about 30 minutes someone said they did not think she would be here. My response was “what?” If we have this event again next year we are going to have seriously think of reassigning her duties to someone else. We rounded up a different photographer to take the absent Beth’s place, who I learned later was sleeping.
We reversed our steps taking the plastic off, the dirt (which was still very warm surprisingly), the corn stalks and then the meat. Everything was still very warm in the center of the pile. The rocks still could not be held for more than a couple seconds in your bare hand. My concerns of it being overcooked surfaced again. We loaded the meat into the meat wagon and transported
it to the garage. There we began taking the chicken wire off and then to an imaginary drum roll, opened the foil. The first comment was, “the meat is not done.” My heart skipped a beat, as I saw many years of harassment in my future, but then to my relief, realized it was just fat that we were seeing, which has a light color. When the aluminum was fully removed we recognized the meat to be fully cooked and it looked good. I picked up the tongs and grabbed the 5 lb chunk of meat in the middle and lifted, only for the ends of the meat to fall to the sides. I had only a little portion of the meat remaining in the tongs. The meat was of the tenderness consistency I had remembered back on the island of Kauai in the state of Hawaii last Thanksgiving.
We picked at the meat with tongs and it just fell apart. The turkey was the best I have ever had. Everyone was extremely impressed with the turkey flavor as well as the pork. Comments included, “you are not going to get pulled pork any better than this,” “this
We had no Hawaiin Flower Leis for our Luau, so we used the kind they use in Louisiana
is the best pulled pork I have ever had.” We added some more salt for flavoring. Aunt Robin took a large portion of the pork to her house for barbeque flavoring. The rest of the meat was put into cookers for the party later in the day. The meat with the Ti leaves did not taste any different to us, in comparison to the control group, which had no Ti leaves.
I was thoroughly pleased with the result and I hope for this to be a 4th of July tradition for our family. We all had a great time. Again, many thanks to everyone who took part in this event. I hope it gets even bigger next year. The only downside was Beth’s performance. Beth we need to talk!
Peace and best wishes,
The Imu Cooking Gang!
I really think this would be a neat fund raiser! Maybe do it for a church picnic sometime. I am sure that would give the elder women some concern! I can see how that conversation might go. The elder women would say, “for 50 years we have been cooking pork this way.” With my response being
well the Pacific Islanders cooked meat this way for 1,000’s of years.” Then they would say, “Dave we are not on a Pacific Island.” I would have to admit that to be true and would not have a good come back and I would lose the argument!
There are more photos below