Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mark Twain: “The Cherimoya is Deliciousness Itself.”

“We had an abundance of mangoes, papaias and bananas here, but the pride of the islands, the most delicious fruit known to men, cherimoya, was not in season. It has a soft pulp, like a pawpaw, and is eaten with a spoon.”  (Mark Twain, The Sacramento Daily Union, October 25, 1866, Kilauea, June, 1866.)

Ever since I read this quote by Mark Twain almost one year ago (see Monkey Pod Tree) I had been searching out the cherimoya.  We spent this past weekend in the Waipio Valley on the Big Island, considered one of the ten most beautiful valleys in the world, and home to the steepest county road in the nation, at a fund raiser for the Slow Food Organization -- and to my great pleasure, I was given two cherimoyas.

The taste has been said to be indescribable, or a mixture of banana and pineapple, but to me it seemed slightly pear-like in its flavor.  The texture was of custard.  And, yes it was magnificent!

Even Purdue University had this to say, “Certainly the most esteemed of the fruits of the genus family annonaceae, also called the custard apple family, is the cherimoya.”

The family is comprised of flowering plants consisting of trees, shrubs or rarely lianas (vines).  With about 2300 to 2500 species and more than 130 genera, it is the largest family in Magnoliales (yes, like the magnolia tree). The family is concentrated in the tropics, with a few species found intemperate regions like the paw-paw in the Midwest of the U.S. which is the largest edible fruit native to America.

The cherimoya is believed indigenous to the interandean valleys of Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia.   In 1790 the cherimoya was introduced into Hawaii by Don Francisco de Paulo Marin. It is still grown in the islands and naturalized in dry upland forests.  http://www.hort.purdue.edu

The flesh of the ripe cherimoya is most commonly eaten out of-hand or scooped with a spoon from the cut open fruit. It really needs no embellishment but some people in Mexico like to add a few drops of lime juice. The skin and seeds are not to be eaten.  Occasionally it is seeded and added to fruit salads or used for making sherbet or ice cream.  The seeds are often crushed and used as an insecticide.

I had read that it was probably apocryphal that Mark Twain really said on tasting his first cherimoya that it was “deliciousness itself,” but entering in Google the words “Mark Twain” and “deliciousness itself” yielded 916 results, and then on page two, I found it!

“We had an abundance of fruit in Honolulu, of course. Oranges, pine-apples, bananas, strawberries, lemons, limes, mangoes, guavas, melons, and a rare and curious luxury called the cherimoya, which is deliciousness itself.”  (Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872)

Two famous botanists from the middle of the 19th century had this to say about the cherimoya.

Thaddaeus Haenke, geographer and explorer in South America, called it a "masterpiece of nature.”

And, the famous fruit expert and botanist, Dr. Berthold Carl Seemann, who traveled widely and collected and described plants from the Pacific and South America. said, “The pinapple, the mangosteen and cherimoyas are considered the finest fruits in the world, and I have tasted them in the places where they are said to be at their best and reach their highest perfection--the pinapple in Milagro (Ecuador), the cherimoya on the slopes of the Andes and the mangosteen in the Indian Archipelago."  Dr. Seemann's unhesitating choice was reported to be, of course, the cherimoya.

I am not aware of any Hawaiian cherimoya mail order farms, but you can buy them from California growers.  One example is http://www.rain.org.  You indeed owe it to yourself!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Big Island = Big Cattle Ranch


You could probably win many bets on the mainland, especially in Texas, asking people to guess where the largest U.S. cattle ranch in the country’s history was located.  It certainly surprised me to learn that it was in Hawaii and, in fact, right here on the Big Island.

And it is still the largest ranch under a single private owner, and the fifth largest beef producing ranch in the nation.  It is also one of the country’s oldest ranches, with more than 160 years of history.

This is yet another story involving King Kamehameha I and his impact on Hawaii.  It began in 1809, a single generation after Captain James Cook first encountered the Hawaiian Islands (or the Sandwich Islands as he called them).  It also started very modestly when the British Captain George Vancouver presented Kamehameha with just one bull and five cows 21 years earlier in 1793.

From these animals released on the Big Island, which reportedly arrived in a very beat-up condition, they generated a huge heard of thousands of feral cattle roaming about the Big Island, causing untold problems for the subjects of the great King.  You may recall that David Douglas (for which the Douglas Fir tree is named) fell or was pushed into a “bullock pit” and died in 1834.

So it was that in 1809 King Kamehameha asked John Parker, a 19-year-old New England sailor from Boston (part of the family owning the Parker House Hotel), to round up the wild cows.  His story is fascinating as well --  Parker had jumped ship here in Hawaii and somehow soon came to the attention of King Kamehameha who, in turn, entrusted him with important assignments.  With the help of Hawaiian workers, Parker established a booming beef, tallow and hide business with visiting whalers and sandalwood trading ships.
Due mostly to Parker’s efforts, salt beef eventually replaced the increasingly scarce sandalwood as the island’s chief export. As the need for beef increased, so did his fortune and influence. And in 1815, Parker married Kipikane, the daughter of a high-ranking chief, who bore John a daughter and two sons, and the Parker dynasty began.  http://parkerranch.com/Parker-Ranch/161/history-of-parker-ranch

By 1832, Parker was desperate for help. He worked with King Kamehameha III to contract Mexican vaqueros, expert horsemen with plenty of cattle experience. They arrived with boots and saddles, a new language and a flamboyant new lifestyle for the island. Called “paniolo” (“espanol”) by Hawaiians, these cowboys trained local men to rope and ride 20-30 years before their American counterparts in the Wild West. Their contributions to local culture included the guitar, ukulele and slack key tuning, and a lifestyle of hard work, close-knit family ties and music that thrives to this day.
The beef business boomed and Parker Ranch was born. Over the next century it grew into the world’s largest privately-owned cattle ranch with 150,000 acres raising 30,000 head of prime Angus and Charolais beef cattle. (At its peak it spread over half a million acres.)  And until 1992 the ranch was controlled by a descendent of John Parker, after which the ranch has been governed by the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust.  http://www.bigisland.org/activities-cultural/464/history-of-paniolo-ranching-on-hawaiis-big-island

Today the Parker Ranch is a respected cattle ranch across some 175,000 acres of the Big Island and known for its quality beef, producing 10 million pounds of beef each year and ranking as the fifth largest cow-calf operation in the United States.  http://www.hawaii247.com/2010/06/24/parker-ranch-waives-admission-to-historic-homes-june-26/ 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hawaii’s “First Industry” -- Sandalwood

The history of Hawaii after European contact can be traced through a succession of dominant industries: first sandalwood, followed by (beef on the Big Island), whaling, sugarcane, pineapple, military, tourism, and education. Since statehood in 1959, tourism has been the largest industry, despite efforts to diversify.

Sandalwood ('iliahi) is the name of different fragrant woods. These woods are often used for the essential oil they contain. The wood is heavy and yellow in color as well as fine-grained, and unlike many other aromatic woods it retains its fragrance for decades. The sandalwood fragrance is very distinctive and is used in countless applications. Sandalwood has been valued and treasured for many years for its fragrance, carving, medical and religious qualities.

Unlike most trees, sandalwood is harvested by toppling the entire tree instead of sawing them down at the trunk. This way, valuable wood from the stump and root can also be sold or processed for oil.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandalwood

By the time Captain Cook landed on the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, India's supply of sandalwood was nearly depleted.  This set the stage for Hawaii's entry into the international commercial market. During the 1800s, traders made deals with Hawaiian chiefs to cut down the native sandalwood trees, and sailing ships carried thousands of tons of heartwood to India, Asia and Europe. Soon the native forests of sandalwood and other beautiful hardwoods (such as Acacia koa) were all cut down, a massive deforestation from which the islands have never recovered. http://www.indiadivine.org/audarya/hinduism-forum/189256-sandalwood-india-hawaii.html
(Sandalwood trade in Rarotonga)
In 1811 Kamehameha controlled the sandalwood trade as a near-monopoly through the use of his agents. While a few individual chiefs also dealt directly with traders, it was not until the death of Kamehameha I that a wholesale pillaging of sandalwood forests took place. While Kamehameha I still held the reigns, he placed a kapu on young trees and no transaction was ever done on credit.

After Kamehameha's death in 1819, his son Kamehameha II fell into debt with sandalwood traders. Having given away his own lands, he relied on the wood supplies of others. http://www.hawaiihistory.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=ig.page&PageID=274

In December 1826, the kingdom of Hawai'i enacted its first written law — a sandalwood tax. Every man was ordered to deliver to the government a half picul of 'iliahi, or pay four Spanish dollars, by Sept. 1, 1827. Every woman older than 13 was obligated to make a 12-by-6-foot kapa cloth. The taxes were collected to reduce a staggering debt level.

This period saw two major famines as 'iliahi was harvested to the point of near extinction in Hawai'i forests. The common people were displaced from their agricultural and fishing duties, and all labor was diverted to harvesting sandalwood.  http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2006/Apr/14/il/FP604140306.html

By 1830, the trade in sandalwood had completely collapsed. Hawaiian forests were exhausted and sandalwood from other areas in the Pacific (e.g., Rarotonga) drove down the price and made the Hawaiian trade unprofitable. Although forests were ravaged, sandalwood trees still survive today, tucked away on less accessible mountain slopes.  http://www.hawaiihistory.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=ig.page&PageID=274