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“Hey, thanks, man.” “No, thank you.”
Image: Courtesy KEY Project

Imu ’Em

Test out a Thanksgiving tradition, Hawaiian style.

For a Hawaiian Thanksgiving, various spots around the island will be hosting imu, authentic underground ovens in which the public can have their Thanksgiving birds or beasts cooked overnight.

An imu is a deep pit that primarily uses steam to cook whatever is placed into it–pigs, bananas, taro; the choices are endless. The heat is distributed from the bottom of the oven by stones, which are layered above a (usually) kiawe wood-fueled fire at the base. Before the oven is sealed shut with an earth covering, different vegetable matter, such as ti, coconut, palm and banana leaves, are placed in layers above the heated stones, as well as on top of the food, to enhance the steaming process. The result is extremely moist, juice-dripping meat with a slightly salty, earthy flavor.

What’s so ingenious about hosting a Thanksgiving imu is that it gives people the hassle-free opportunity to drop off thawed and foil-wrapped turkeys, hams, or mixed vegetables on Thanksgiving Eve to roast overnight under the careful watch of pit crews, and return the next morning to reclaim a delicious prize. Many locals have come to trust the various imu hosted around the island to take care of their holiday cooking, and return annually to support the same imu. “We don’t even really have to advertise,” says Lorraine Haili-Alo of Haili’s Hawaiian Foods, the only Town-based Thanksgiving imu service.

Even though Thanksgiving imu have been around for decades, the process, being traditional and artisanal by definition, never really simplifies. In addition to the multiple steps involved in preparing an imu and tending to it–the exhausting, sweaty work of digging the pit, making sure that the stones are properly heated, that there is enough vegetation placed inside to produce sufficient steam and that the oven’s earth covering is safely placed–there is a demand for labor that requires many hands.

As it turns out, it’s just as rewarding to host an imu, as John Reppun, taro farmer and executive director of Kualoa-Heeia Ecumenical Youth Project (KEY), explains that imu emphasize the values of community and working together. Reppun says the importance of “extended interactions between human beings,” is exemplified by the many people who return every year to volunteer in “keeping traditional Hawaiian cooking alive” at their annual Thanksgiving imu. “What I love the most . . . is that there are so many volunteers helping . . . so many people passing bags through the line . . . always so many hands,” he says.

It’s KEY’s 26th year of holiday imu, and Reppun says the cooking and prep work has grown into a multi-generational, as well as multi-family, project. “The handiwork is done by the regulars, like my brother who is a farmer . . . it’s [about] our generation and their kids, and sometimes their kids, too.”

Todd Hendricks coordinates the 17th annual Kailua High School Thanksgiving imu, which this year has already sold out. “Planning starts months ahead of time,” he says, with volunteers donating raw materials for the oven. Setting up the oven starts about four days prior to Thanksgiving. “It’s . . . students who volunteer. A lot of alumni help out, and parents help out, too . . . It’s basically their fundraiser,” Hendricks notes.

Some imu hostings are dedicated to raising money for schools and various events. Coordinator Patti Cook says that all the money from this year’s imu at Waimea Middle School will go to funding an East Coast educational trip for the WMS 8th graders. “It really is a terrific opportunity,” Cook explains, “to provide students with a glimpse of post-high school opportunities, and for many, [the trip] represents their first visit out of state.” She also praises how former students still come back to help with tending to the imu because “they appreciate what they learned and want to perpetuate the practice.”

The title award for least costly Thanksgiving imu service would have to belong to Castle High School, where a $15 roasting fee gets a family a spot to cook their bird, Hawaiian-style. CHS’s imu has been going strong for about 25 to 30 years now, and the local community has come to rely on the yearly event. Imu coordinator and agriculture teacher Colby Kagawa strongly believes in fostering a tightly knit group of close families from the area. “I don’t really advertise [our imu] because we only have 300 spots, and I’d rather take care of my community first.” Not that there’s much need to advertise, since CHS’s Thanksgiving imu sells out every year and locals begin to call in with inquiries starting in early September. “The community [tries] to support the school, and the agriculture classes, too,” he says.

Also on the Windward side is the imu at Enchanted Lake Elementary School, only their third–it takes time for word of mouth to spread and solidify the news. But coordinators Nachelle and Shawn Hepfner, a wife-and-husband team, seem optimistic, observing that, “the people who do take part really enjoy it, since they don’t have to drive far and don’t have to cook their turkey,” Nachelle says.

The big easy

But for some, Thanksgiving is a time of complete laziness with absolutely no effort, and there is nothing wrong with that. In this case, there’s no need to even buy a turkey beforehand. Simply pick up the phone, order a turkey or ham from Haili’s Hawaiian Foods and a spot in their imu is simultaneously reserved. All that’s left to do is wait, sleep, and redeem a bird on Thanksgiving morning. Having been in business for more than 60 years, the family-run Haili’s has held a Thanksgiving imu “for a very, very long time,” Lorraine Haili-Alo says. Even more impressive than their time-tested legacy, Haili’s donates unsold turkeys to the imu at Kailua and Castle High School if surplus inventory permits. Talk about partaking in the holiday spirit and encouraging community ties–all of these civic-minded ventures are walking it.

A list of T-day imu: ALL have deadlines this week!

Castle High School Thanksgiving Imu

Reservations must made in person at front office, first come first serve, approx. 40 spots left

Only accepting turkeys, must be thawed and wrapped

45-386 Kaneohe Bay Dr., Drop-off Wed., 11/21, 3–5pm; Pick-up Thu., 11/22, 9–11am; $15, 233-5600

Enchanted Lake Elementary School Thanksgiving Imu

Reservation deadline 11/16, approx. 100 spots left

Foods must be thawed, 20 lb. limit

770 Keolu Dr., Drop-off Wed., 11/21, 6–9am or 3–6pm; Pick-up Thu., 11/22, 7–9am; $20, 263-1411 ext. 236

Sweet Waimanalo corn for sale ($8 for six ears of corn) first come first serve on 11/21

KEY Project Thanksgiving Imu

Reservation deadline 11/16

Foods must be thawed, no pans allowed, double-wrap in foil or oven bags

47-200 Waihee Rd., Drop-off Wed., 11/21, 5:30–6:30pm; Pick-up Thu., 11/22, 10–11am; $20, [keyproject.org], 239-5777

“Thanksgiving Complete Meals To-Go” pre-sale ($100 for a full meal with turkey, garlic truffle ulu mashed potatoes, Portuguese sausage stuffing, gravy, cranberry starfruit jelly and bread pudding with Waiahole guava anglaise), Whole imu turkey pre-sale ($40)

Waimea Middle School Thanksgiving Imu

Reservation deadline 11/16

Foods must be thawed

67-1229 Mamalahoa Hwy., Drop-off Wed., 11/21, 3–5pm; Pick-up Thu., 11/22, 8–9am; $20, 937-2833

Haili’s Hawaiian Foods Thanksgiving Imu Turkeys For Sale

Reservation deadline 11/18

760 Palani Ave., Pick-up Thu., 11/22, 9am–noon; $55, 735-8019

Price covers 20+ lb. turkey or 12-15 lb. ham, imu in Waianae, but pick-up at Kapahulu restaurant