24 (Sat) October 2020
Mafatu’s Umu Puaa
at the cabin
-Changchon, Seowon, Hoengseong, Gangwon, Republic of Korea-
with DJ, IZ, Mom, and King
Newbery 100 Medals, 100 Meals (11) (see 100 NEWBERY M&Ms)
While reading the 99 books that have been awarded the annual Newbery Medal since 1922 – leading up to the 100th winner to be announced next year – I will also attempt to create one dish for every book, a dish that is directly referenced in or indirectly inspired by the events of the book. Food plays a strong role in many of the stories; not surprising as the characters in most of the books are faced with adversity of some sort, including poverty, so they’re often very hungry and thus grateful whenever they get a bite to eat – as we all should be at every meal, give us this day our daily bread. The dishes will be featured as posts on Give Me This Day.
Call It Courage (1941) by Armstrong Sperry. The book is about Mafatu, a boy living on the Pacific island of Hikueru. Having lost his mother and nearly drowning in a boat accident as a very young child, Mafatu still fears the water, prompting constant ridicule from everyone in his fishing village, including his father, the village chief. To conquer his fear, Mafatu sets sail for a distant island, where he somehow manages to kill a hammerhead shark (ma’o), giant octopus (feke), and wild boar (puaa). When he returns, his father calls out to the village: “Here is my son come home from the sea. Mafatu, Stout Heart. A brave name for a brave boy!”
I enjoyed the book as an entertainment, though I was troubled a bit by the underlying message: if your dad is bullying you for being a wimp, even if it’s because you suffer from severe emotional trauma, the solution is to run away from home and kill some big animals to prove how awesome you actually are.
Umu is a traditional cooking method common across the Pacific islands. Big stones heated by fire, placed in a huge pit, topped with whole pigs, chickens, fish, root vegetables, covered with plaintain/banana leaves, which seal in the heat, release moisture, and add flavor. A type of earth oven, one of the oldest techniques in culinary history, it’s still practiced today on special occasions in some countries (e.g., Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand).
[paraphrased in part]
Mafatu built up a roaring fire and set a pile of stones to heat. While the stones were heating, the boy cleaned the pig at the water’s edge, then stuffed its empty belly with succulent ti leaves and red bananas. When at last the oven stones were white and smoking, Mafatu dragged the pig back to the fire and rolled it upon the hot umu. Then he covered it with layer upon layer of plantain leaves – dozens of them – to hold in the steam and to allow the pork to cook. Pork! After weeks of fish and fish and fish, how good it would taste!
I might’ve given a crack at digging the hole and heating the stones, but I didn’t have plantain/banana leaves or anything similar that could perform the same essential functions.
Instead, I applied my trusty gold mountain slow-roasting technique, substituting the kettle grill for the umu. The charcoal briquettes, heated to white smokiness, seemed a reasonable surrogate for the stones.
In addition to the lamb seasoning, I basted the meat halfway through the roast with a barbecue sauce, sort of as a surrogate for the leaves.
I decided not to brine the meat, just to see how juicy the pork shoulder would turn out as is.
Forgetting to bring either a grill thermometer to maintain the heat within the faux umu or a meat thermometer to check doneness of the puaa, I had to rely on instinct, honed by experience, using sight, smell, and touch to gauge progress.
He pulled the oven stones away from the umu, and there lay the pig, golden, glowing, done to a turn. Rich juices ran in little rivulets down its sides. And as Mafatu ate, one thought alone filled his mind, overshadowing even his enjoyment of this rare feast: soon, soon now he would be ready. He had killed the ma’o. The puaa, too. His canoe would soon he completed. And then – then he would return to Hikueru!
It was awesome. The pork was cooked to a perfectly tender, perfectly juicy medium doneness. The spice rub and barbecue sauce provided sweet, smoky, spicy flavor, further enhanced by the charred crust. Everyone, including my mother – who gave me a kind of sarcastic clap à la Pelosi at the 2019 State of the Union address – seemed very pleased.
We were joined by one of DJ’s best friends. His American name is Roy, so I call him “King.”
(See also FOODS.)
(See also PLACES.)