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Excerpt: 'Unfamiliar Fishes'


In certain ways, the Americanization of Hawaii in the nineteenth century parallels the Americanization of America. Just as their Puritan forebears had set off on their errand into the wilderness of New England, the New England missionaries set sail for the Sandwich Islands, a place they thought of as a spiritual wilderness. Just as perhaps nine out of ten natives of the Americas were wiped out by contact with European diseases, so was the native Hawaiian population ravaged by smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and venereal disease. Just as the Industrial Revolution and the building of the railroads brought in the huddled masses of immigrants to the United States, the sugar plantations founded by the sons of the missionaries required massive imports of labor, primarily from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, and the Philippines, transforming Hawaii into what it has become, a multiethnic miscellany in which every race is a minority.

Hence the plate lunch. Two scoops of Japanese-style rice and one scoop of macaroni salad seemingly airlifted from some church potluck in Anywhere, U.S.A., are served alongside a Polynesian or Asian protein such as kalua pig, chicken adobo, teriyaki beef, or Loco Moco (a hamburger patty topped with gravy and a fried egg, a dish presumably invented to remedy what has always been the hamburger's most obvious defect—not enough egg).

Sugar plantation workers used to share food at lunchtime, swapping tofu and Chinese noodles for Korean spareribs and Portuguese bread. That habit of hodgepodge got passed down, evolving into the plate lunch now served at diners, drive-ins, and lunch trucks throughout the Hawaiian archipelago.

In 1961, the late Seiju Ifuku established the Rainbow Drive-In, the joint on the edge of Waikiki where I bought my plate lunch. Ifuku had been an army cook with the One Hundredth Infantry Battalion. The mostly Hawaii-born Japanese-American volunteer soldiers in the One Hundredth and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team served as segregated troops in Europe and North Africa during World War II, becoming the most decorated unit in U.S. military history and earning the nickname the "Purple Heart Battalion." Their motto was "Remember Pearl Harbor." Their argument was that they were Americans, not, as the U.S. government classified them and their families, "enemy aliens."

Rainbow Drive-In's menu, offering teriyaki, hot dogs, mahimahi, and Portuguese sausage, reads like a list of what America is supposed to be like—a neighborly mishmash. Barack Obama, the Honolulu-born president of the United States, mentioned once on a trip home his craving for plate lunch, listing Rainbow Drive-In as a possible stop. Makes sense, considering that his Kansan mother met his Kenyan father at the University of Hawaii and his mother's remarriage blessed him with a half-Indonesian sister. He's our first plate-lunch president.

I suppose the double-sided way I see the history of Hawaii—as a painful tale of native loss combined with an idealistic multiethnic saga symbolized by mixed plates in which soy sauce and mayonnaise peacefully coexist and congeal—tracks with how I see the history of the United States in general. I am the descendant of Cherokees who were marched at gunpoint by the U.S. Army to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. (Incidentally, the Cherokees were Christianized and educated by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the very same New England organization that Christianized and educated the Hawaiians.) Yet I am also, and mostly, the descendant of European immigrants, notably Swedish peasants who left for Kansas for the same reasons Asian and Portuguese plantation workers sailed to Hawaii.

Whenever I eat plate lunch, I always think back to the lore of my Swedish great-grandfather's voyage across the Atlantic. Supposedly, the only food he brought with him on the ship was a big hunk of cheese. Then he befriended a German in steerage whose only food was a big hunk of sausage. The Swede shared his cheese with the German and the German shared his sausage with the Swede.

Growing up, I came to know America as two places—a rapacious country built on the destruction of its original inhabitants, and a welcoming land of opportunity and generosity built by people who shared their sausage and their cheese.

Excerpted from Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell. Copyright 2011 by Sarah Vowell. Published by Riverhead. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead.

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Sarah Vowell
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