story by Julia Steele
photos by Brad Goda
This is a story about palms, but for me it starts here: on the dance floor of a Honolulu nightclub called Anna Bannanas. To give you an idea of how long ago: The band is playing Free Nelson Mandela. To give you an idea of why: Out on the floor, there’s a Chinese guy gyrating wildly. He’s twisting and bopping and whirling, and he’s three sheets to the wind. When the band finally breaks, he comes over and hurls himself into a chair next to me. “Well,” he says, with a droll laugh and a voice that recalls a young Laurence Olivier, “wasn’t that special?” Then he leans over and introduces himself: Alan Young, enchanté.
Two decades later he’s a good friend, this bon vivant, global nomad, foodie extraordinaire. To picture Alan, think Oscar Wilde (cultured, caustic), then Julia Child (brilliant cook), then fuse them. The Wilde Child you’ve concocted is Alan. These days he lives in Hilo, in a little house on Kino‘ole Street, where he whips up dishes to sell at farmers’ markets in East Hawai‘i. Whenever I get off the plane in Hilo now, I make a beeline for his house and raid his fridge. Maybe I’ll find perfectly spiced lentils or a minty Moroccan salad or Peruvian gold potatoes. My favorite of his dishes is a dessert: the liliko‘i tapioca. It’s worth the price of the flight.
While I eat, Alan fills me in on his life. Always he has travels and recipes to talk of and news to share—and it was during one of those conversations that he told me he’d become president of the Hawai‘i Island Palm Society.
“Jeez,” I said, “I didn’t realize you were that involved with palms.”
“I’m not,” came the retort. “But I’d just gotten off a flight from India, and I was sitting at my kitchen table, and I’d had quite a bit of wine to drink, and Karen Piercy called and ambushed me, and the next thing I knew I was the president.”
A reverse coup—thrust into power in a moment of weakness.
“So are you growing palms then?” I queried. I was being seduced by a palm as I asked, eating my second bowl of tapioca and marveling at the fullness of its coconut flavor.
This time the voice was pure Vincent Price. “Honey, I killed the only palm I ever owned. They just wanted a pretty face.”
They are statuesque, graceful and generous. They’re self-reliant and self-controlled. They’re the ultimate marker of the most bewitching place on earth: the tropics. Back in Honolulu, I kept thinking about the Hawai‘i Island Palm Society. Who, I wondered, were these people who’d appointed Alan their leader? I called my friend Jan to ask what she knew about palm-ophiles in the Islands. Jan’s a hard-core botanist, one of those people who can tell you—in Latin—the name of every plant in your yard, one of those people who will fly halfway around the world to see some exotic flower put on a cabaret.
Jan didn’t know anything specific about the palm society (HIPS for short), but she had some more general ideas. “Palm people,” she said, “are weird. They’re always sneaking around with flashlights looking to get seeds off your trees. They’re a bizarre group, they really are.”
I rattled off a half-formed theory that there was something interesting somewhere between the complex botany of palms and the wacky sociology of the Big Island, but Jan didn’t seem to have heard.
“They’re a kinky crowd,” she said just before she hung up.
I called Alan. He was in the middle of making pasta salad with fennel and dal baht with rajma. “What can I say?” he said. “I’m just a little cooking devil.”
“Alan,” I said, “can you tell me more about the palm society?”
There was silence on the other end of the line while he thought. “Well, it attracts idiosyncratic intelligent retired folks,” he said. “In my tenure, I tried to give it a strong local face. Did it work? Sort of. But it’s not like the Ikebana Society at the Hongwanji, dear. You know, East is East and West is West and what-ev-er. There are so many garden societies here: orchids, rhododendrons, et cetera, et cetera. It’s the Big Island!” The big, lush, verdant and fertile island.