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Second in a series written for the Four Sundays in Advent
~ by Leilehua Yuen
The first Christmas celebration in Hawai`i took place 34 years before the arrival of the Missionaries - who promptly did what they could to discourage any further celebration!
George Dixon had served under Capt. James Cook during Cook’s third Pacific voyage, so Dixon was familiar with the Hawaiian Islands. In 1785, he made a career move to the merchant marine, becoming a partner in Richard Cadman Etches and Company - better known to Americans as the King George’s Sound Company. There, he became Captain of the merchant ship QUEEN CHARLOTTE.
In her Pacific travels, QUEEN CHARLOTTE traveled in company with the KING GEORGE, captained by Nathaniel Portlock, commander of the expedition to explore the shoreline of what is now British Colombia. They spent the summers of 1786 and 1787 coasting the Pacific North-West. That winter of 1786 they spent in, as Hawai`i was then known to English-speakers, the “Sandwich Isles.”
Christmas Eve, 1786, Captain Portlock had gone ashore and given out trinkets to women and children he met. On Christmas Day, he had a visitor aboard the KING GEORGE, and that night wrote in his log, "Kiana came off in a long double canoe and brought me a present of some hogs and vegetables which I received gladly, and made a return that pleased him very much."
Far from home, the sailors had no contact with family or land-based friends. It could take years for a simple letter to reach a sweetheart. There was no such thing as speed-dial or e-mail.
To cheer their spirits, Captain Dixon ordered a celebration of the Christmas holy day. He had a holiday punch made by having the men’s ration of rum mixed with coconut juice. Island hog was baked into a sea-pie (a concoction of available meats layered with hardtack and lard and baked in a large iron pot) for the festive supper. Such fresh meat was a real treat for the sailors, who spent months at sea subsisting primarily on salt meat and hard biscuits.
Probably the sailors sang traditional carols of the British Isles, such as Here We Come a Wassailing, and I Saw Three Ships. Fiddles, guitars, banjos, harmonicas, flutes, and whistles were popular among sailors, and some of these instruments may have accompanied the songs.
Following is a holiday menu which could have been served on a ship in the Hawai`i of 1786:
Breadfruit Yams Sweet Potatoes
Grog Tea Wai Niu
There are many claims for the origin of the sea pie. Some say it is a French meat pie, mispronounced, others claim it as a Canadian explorer’s dish, filled with game. Some say it is a gamebird pie from the British Isles. I like to think it is an old English “mess” which was adapted to ship-cookery, able to make palatable whatever game or harvest those sent ashore were able to bring back. Following is a recipe from the “family archives.”
Wet hard tack with water and line pot. Lay in split pigeons to cover. Dry or gamey birds may be laced with lard. Lay on a layer of hard tack. Lay in beef, elk, venison, mutton, or what scraps may be available. Repeat layers till the pot is full and no meat wasted. Add water to cover meat and top with hardtack. Cover. Place in hot coals for two-three hours.
You can make it palatable to modern tastes with the following substitutions:
Crackers (Saloon Pilots) for stale and buggy hardtack
*Chicken Thighs or Cornish Hens for game birds (or if you hunt, go ahead and use game birds!)
*Any inexpensive cuts of meat
Sprinkle cubed meat and the birds with salt and pepper. Roll in flour. Brown in a heavy skillet. Line a large pot with the pilot crackers and make layers as in the original recipe. Add chicken broth or some bouillon. Cover. Bake in a 250 degree oven for about two and a half hours, or until meats are tender.
Jungle fowl, or moa, an ancestor of the chicken, was readily available and likely would have been potted or stewed. It may have been included in the Sea Pie, along with the hog.
Fresh fish would have been available. In all likelihood, the ships' cooks would have potted them, using the Sea Pie recipe. Hopefully, someone would have considered grilling or baking the fish.
English and American sailors would have recognized fiddleheads, the curled young shoots of ferns. In Hawai`i they are known as hō`i`o, and have been a makahiki food for centuries. Yams, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, and fiddleheads may have been among the “fresh vegetables” Kiana gave Captain Portlock.
Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Add a quarter cup of apple vinegar (Capt. Cook promoted keeping vinegar on sailing ships of this era as a tonic to prevent scurvy, and as a disinfectant). Add cleaned and chopped ho`i`o. Boil until just tender.
Breadfruit likely would have been pushed into the coals and baked for two or three hours, until tender, and then eaten like potatoes. An imaginative ship’s cook may have partially cooked them, peeled and cut them up, and added them to the sea pie, where they would absorb the gravy.
Probably the "potatoes" mentioned by the early sailors were yams harvested from the hillsides. Sweet potatoes were cultivated at that time by the Hawaiians, but not a favored provision for the ships’ crews, due to their short storage life. Yams, while more grainy and less sweet, lasted much longer on an ocean voyage.
We do not know if the "yams" were true yams (Smilax melastomifolia) or sweet potatoes (Ipomea batatas), you can use this recipe for either one that is available in your market. Brown salt pork (or bacon) in a heavy pot. Cut up some yams (about half a large yam per person is usually plenty). Let the pot cool a bit. Add the yams to the pot and water to cover. Bring to a boil and then simmer until the yams are tender.
If sweet potatoes had been included in Kiana's gift, they may have been cooked like this:
Sweet potatoes into coals while cooking the Sea Pie. In half an hour, start testing with a sharp knife. When knife easily pierces the potato, it is done. Mash and serve sprinkled with sugar. (Captain Cook instituted carrying sugar as a sweetener rather than oil. Similar in caloric content and quickly available energy, sugar did not go rancid during voyages. Previously, British seamen flavored their biscuits by sopping them in oil.)
We know that the sailors had access to coconuts, as the holiday punch was made from coconut juice and rum. The papayas, mangoes, pineapples, and other popular fruits we find today in restaurant buffet lines were not introduced to the islands until well into the 1800s. Fruits of the time were mountain apple and banana. But they probably were not in season for the Christmas celebration.
Fresh water from Hawai`i was safe to drink, but water which had been kept on shipboard was not noted for healthfulness. Officers tended to drink tea or coffee, safer due to boiling the water. Beer was sometimes carried on a ship, but probably would not last all the way to Hawai`i. Grog, rum mixed with water, was considered a seaman’s right. At the time of this first Hawaiian Christmas, `okolehao had not yet been invented.
Pour a jigger of rum in glass, add fresh coconut water. Ice is cheating! To get it, you would have to sail to Maui and climb Hale`akala, or to Hawai`i and climb Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea!
If you are drinking tea, you may well be an officer, and have your own private stash of spices. Live it up! have your servant put a pinch of cinnamon and a spot of rum in the pot when he brews your tea.
Non-alcoholic and very refreshing, the effervescent water of a freshly opened young coconut was prized then and continues to be enjoyed today by those “in the know.”
Today in Hawai`i, our Christmas celebrations include customs from those early sailors, as well as traditions from around the world.
Leilehua Yuen was ordained in 1986 as a Lay Minister in the Episcopal Church, and received her certificate in Hilo, Hawaiʻi through the Education for Ministry extension program of the Universiy of the South at Sewanee. She later studied with esteemed kupuna "Aunty" Nona Beamer, and is now a traditional Hawaiian cultural practitioner, kumu, kahu, and cultural historian with ecumenical and interfaith leanings.