Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Until Death Do Us Part: On Eating Well in the Kingdom of Tonga

Lolei stood at the window of the small wooden shack that served as her kitchen and held an empty plate for the gathering crowd of women to see. Though Cliff and I could only understand a handful of the words she used, it was not difficult to understand Lolei’s cause for excitement: we had cleaned our plate, eating every last piece of fried fish and breadfruit. Little else could have made Lolei as proud.

Before coming to Tonga, I’d read about the Tongans deep affection for food. But it wasn’t until that afternoon, sitting in Lolei’s kitchen as the neighbors gathered to congratulate her on a meal cooked well enough to please even a Palangi (foreigner), that I began to understand how in Tonga, food was a measure of value and esteem. A clean plate, second and third servings consumed and fingers licked were actions less of diet than of mutual acceptance between my Tongan hosts and the skinny Palangis that sat at their table.

Fast forward almost a year to the annual Wesleyan Conference, which is something akin to the Olympic Games of both church attendance and food consumption. It is an intense, two-week period of endurance eating. Feasts were held at 8 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., with non-stop church action in between. The average feast fed 700 people, with a roast pig for every four guests, a 2-liter of juice for every 2, and enough side dishes to feed the whole island.

Tongan feasts put the American pot-luck dinner to shame. Each Tongan family is given responsibility for one, two, or four table lengths of food, depending on the size of the feast and the size of the family. Twenty to thirty separate dishes, several pigs, and multiple baskets of fruit and snacks are prepared for each table. When ready, the average table is stacked two-dishes high, with little room for plates or utensils. And then there’s dessert: cakes with ice cream, custard pies, fresh fruit with puddings.

Feast food is prepared to be enjoyed at the table, but also to be taken home by the guests. People bring plastic bags to fill with root crop, chicken and fruit. Tongan grandmas carry away whole roasted pigs, wrapped in aluminum foil, like footballs. One village, nicknamed “6-pound,” gives away $40 6-pound cans of corned beef to every guest. Other tables distribute bottles of wine or soda, necklaces of candy, bags of chips, whole pineapples, and other treats.

Fourteen days of feasting makes a serious dent in an islander’s budget. One of my coworkers, Soni, whose family contributed to the ongoing feasts on several days, told me his family spent TOP$2,000 to feed 40 people. This is equivalent to an American spending 2/3s of his or her annual salary on a single meal. Soni’s family contributed to three meals.

Feasting is as tiring as it is expensive. With no refrigerators for storage or microwaves for quick reheating, all food must be prepared fresh. Families start cooking the day before and go without sleep for 24 or 48 hour stretches. Our neighbor Latai, nine months pregnant, stayed up all night to help prepare her family’s feast tables. Lolei, our homestay mother, worked 2 days and nights to prepare for our final meal with the family. More than just doing the work required, going without sleep is a sign of love to the community and family.

Despite the expense and the round-the-clock work each feast entails, Tongans give and work cheerfully. To do any less would be shameful. They give so generously that to provide any more would be impossible.

Eating well takes on additional importance when royalty is around. The King and Queen attended the biggest feast of the Wesleyan Conference. This feast, held in the village of Makave, was to celebrate the opening of a new church, a large white wood structure with open windows, polished wood pews, and a stained glass window of Christ on the cross, flanked by windows of the King and Crown Prince.

The Makave feast seated at least 1,500 guests in addition to the royal entourage. Like Americans, Tongans take the liberty of both revering and lampooning their leaders. Middle-aged Tongan women in traditional dress threw themselves on the ground before their king, wailing and writhing in ecstasy of his presence. The King, barely able to move himself from his specially outfitted black van to the decorated shelter, ignored their presence. At the tables and out of earshot, others contemplated the King’s poor health and made quiet jokes about the royal family.

Internationally, the King of Tonga is perhaps best known for his listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest monarch. At 6”4’, he once tipped the scales at over 400 pounds. An exercise regime and old age have whittled the height and weight down, but the people of Tonga still try to honor their super-size king with extra large me’a ofas (love gifts). At the Makave feast, the King was presented with the largest roasted pig I’ve ever seen. It took six young Tongan men to carry it. The sow had green apples in its mouth, stomach (where the organs had been removed), and bum.

The pigs on my table were more modest. They were flanked, on every side, by crabs, fish, beef, chicken, lobsters, and shellfish: a low-carb dieter’s daydream, though few in Tonga have heard of America’s dear Dr. Atkins. Cliff and I eyed a flock of roast turkeys on the table across from us. A friend of ours was eyeing them too, and grabbed an uneaten bird from the table as he left the feast. The next week we ate sandwiches of the stolen turkey every day for lunch.

Even without the turkey there was too much on my table, and too much on my plate. Kai mate, a Tongan woman on my right said to me as I picked at my feast food. Eat until you die. The expression, in Tongan, is not a death-wish or a threat of any kind. It simply expresses a host’s desire that you’ll eat until stuffed, and then eat a little more. That’s the Tongan way. To do any less, to leave the turkey on the table, would be ungracious.