This past Thursday marked the most recent installment of what has become a long-standing Amherst College tradition, the Hawaiian Luau in Valentine Dining Hall. While on the schedule this event might have looked much like another event in Val’s World Cuisine series, the posters that were put up warning students that Val would close at 1:30 p.m. after lunch Thursday afternoon to prepare for dinner set this one apart.
On the morning of the day itself, students were greeted by a wooden bridge as they had their cards scanned, an inkling of the more impressive decorations that would be put up throughout the afternoon. Walking through Valentine a few hours later, one witnessed the ongoing construction of a large volcano in the entrance way. By dinner, this was joined by a pool in service as a fountain, calling up notions of a warmer clime.
Inside, Val had undergone a complete makeover, with the tables at the entrance to the service area replaced by a massive display of tropical fruit arranged around an ice sculpture. The food inside the service area had a decidedly Hawaiian flair, featuring slow-cooked pork, chicken and sweet potatoes. In the area in which cereal is usually served trays and trays held an impressive amount of sushi, in three different varieties. In the dessert area, there was Hawaii 5-0 cake, ice cream in different tropical flavors, as well as Lord Jeff Grog and root beer especially for the occasion. At the far end of the dining hall, a stage had been installed, and when rush hour came, there was live entertainment in the form of a Polynesian band and fire dancers.
Over the past few decades, Hawaiian Luau has become a Valentine tradition, held every four years to ensure that no Amherst student graduates without having had the chance to at least once partake in what is much more a feast than a mere meal. And many students take advantage of the opportunity. Executive Chef Jeremy Roush explained that while during a typical dinner at Valentine they would serve 1,500 meals, he expected that Luau would attract 2,200 diners, an increase of nearly half again and more than the number of students at Amherst. That difference, he said, came from the fact that any faculty members and members of the community who might consider eating at Val would come for Luau. In addition, students from other colleges noticed the announcements around campus. Sean, a Hampshire student, said that he eats at Val two days a week at lunch, because he has a class at Amherst. He came to Luau because he was on campus for an event and saw the signs advertising it.
“I really enjoyed the food, especially the kumquats,” he concluded.
Roush also described some of the preparation for the event, noting that it is specially accounted for in Valentine’s budget, allowing the extra cost of the fruit and sushi to be spread over the four years between each time it is held. This is his first Luau, as he took the post of Executive Chef in September 2010. He added the sushi and the outdoor smoker for the pork, which began its work at 8 a.m. Thursday morning. The sushi was a response to many student requests for sushi, something usually only found in town or at UMass, and he hired the smoker in an effort to provide students with a more authentic experience of Hawaiian food. For the most part, though, Luau was a scripted event, because of the number of times it has been held.
“Many of the staff have been here a long time, so it went like clockwork,” he explained, identifying in particular Chef Howard “Howie” Morrison, who specializes in pastries and created the Hawaii 5-0 cake, and Charlie Thompson, the director of Dining Services.
One staff member, John, counted his tenure by the fact that he has been at Val for three Luaus, adding that the staff had been expanded since everyone was on duty, and they even closed Schwemm’s to bring in more workers.
“The staff really get into the spirit of the event. It’s like decorating for Christmas,” he said.
Students agreed that the decorations made this a special dinner at Val. Several Zu residents who otherwise are not to be found in the dining hall found their way to Luau. Ioanida Costache ’12 was impressed with the food.
“It was definitely, absolutely worth it. To eat this at a restaurant would cost at least $20,” she said.
Though the ice cream and cake lasted another day or so, the sushi and many of the fruits disappeared rapidly during last Thursday’s dinner as students sampled the many delicacies assembled. They’ll be back in four years.