Tasting A Little Cultural History

Feeling hungry for some cultural history?  The show called “Family Ingredients” on PBS gives us a sense of how food can unify people with each other and their culture.  Chef Ed Kenney says, “every dish has a story.”  There’s no better way to express that than through a compelling story from season two, episode three, “Wisconsin Fiddlehead Fern” featuring Kauai’s very own Valerie Kaneshiro.  The episode, which aired on October 25, takes us on a journey to Kaneshiro’s homeland in Wisconsin where she shares a memorable food delicacy from her childhood.

Valerie Kaneshiro smiles proudly presenting her favorite food memory from her youth on the reservation, “waagaagon” (fiddlehead fern)— a flavor you can’t find anywhere else! 
Valerie Kaneshiro grew up on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin.  Kaneshiro’s father is Japanese and from the West side of Kaua’i.  When he went off to college in Chicago, he bonded with the Native Americans, as racial prejudice against both of them was strong.  Natives had come there from the reservations seeking work opportunities in the cities.  His new friends brought him back to the reservation, where he later met Kaneshiro’s mother.
Her parents always worked, but unemployment on the reservation was very high. Kaneshiro says, “Although we were surrounded by poverty and hardship, I had never felt more connected to a place than I did right there in that community.”  There was nothing she wanted more than to help the people whom she so loved and cared for at home. Tension and threats of violence started when protests began against renewal of the lease on the Winter Dam. The power company’s dam had flooded homes, burial grounds, and sources of food, like wild rice beds, of the natives living there.  During this emotional time of controversy, Kaneshiro’s mother separated from them and became part of a power couple with a young activist who was elected Tribal Chairman.  

Kaneshiro felt the need to stand up to injustice. She was only 15 years old when she was asked to testify at a hearing in the county courthouse. The hearing was to decide if the power company could retain control of the dam for another 50 years.  She looked straight ahead at the cameras and reporters and simply said, “I am only 15 years old.  In 50 years, I will still be here.  If another 50 year lease is granted, you can be sure that I, and my children, will be back here again.  We will never forget.”  Kaneshiro received her chance to show support for her community, as a youth of her tribe. Eventually, the Lac Court Oreilles Ojibwe won control over the dam, and received more than 25,000 acres of their reservation land back from the federal government. The Power company then provided the tribe money and opportunities for business.

Although we were surrounded by poverty and hardship, I had never felt more connected to a place than I did right there in that community.


Left to Right:  Ojibwe chef Tashia Hart of the Red Lake Nation of Minnesota, chef Ed Kenney, and Valerie Kaneshiro, showcasing the special ingredients Tashia forages for use in indigenous cuisine.
Christmas vacation began, and her father, feeling the tension from all the continuing personal and political upheaval, convinced her and her two sisters to join him on a road trip to San Francisco, to visit family.  Kaneshiro remembers her father promising that they would return home by New Year’s, which sealed the deal to head west.  Once they arrived in San Francisco, her father got them to board a plane to Kaua’i with the same promise. When it was time to go home, her father said something that, to Kaneshiro, “felt like getting hit by a Mack truck:” “We’re not going back.”  Now, her father’s motives behind the non-stop cross-country driving became clear.  Her mother told her later, that she had frantically notified the State Patrol that he was stealing the kids.
The traumatic circumstances of their arrival here, left her with years of longing to go home.  When Kaneshiro revisited the reservation to film Family Ingredients, it was a deeply emotional experience. She recalls feeling “bundled in a cloak of comfort” and she was happy to see that there were more jobs, more opportunities, and more hope for the people.  She told Dan Nakasone, producer of Family Ingredients, that her favorite food memory growing up on the reservation was “waagaagon,” a fiddlehead fern shoot which holds a “wonderful flavor” that Kaneshiro could never get elsewhere. In the show, Tashia Hart, a young Ojibwe chef, prepared a Fiddlehead Fern dish with chef Ed Kenney, using a variety of native ingredients she foraged for, giving us a taste of Wisconsin! 

Valerie Kaneshiro on the farm with one of her baby pigs.
Her life on Kaua’i has grown ever since, and her want to help others continues.  Valerie Kaneshiro is one of the proud owners of Kaneshiro Farms in Oma’o, where she raises pigs.  As any farmer would know, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to sustain a farm!  She finds a unique personality in each of the sows and boars she works with. Without hesitation, she dedicated herself to keep her pigs well cared for.  And she enjoys doing so, saying, “There is never a dull moment!”  Kaneshiro Farm’s pigs are carefully raised to bring only the best fresh island pork to the table.  Their customers include grocery stores, luaus, caterers, restaurants, and local families.  Look for the “Kauai Grown” label at the meat counter!  

When you’re traveling a bumpy road of life experiences, you can either choose to let it rock you, or learn to pave it, and make the most out of it.  Growing up on the reservation, Kaneshiro learned that they must persevere to sustain for their children and future generations.  Also guided by a similar Japanese saying, “kodomo no tami ni,” meaning “for the sake of the children,”  Kaneshiro believes that happiness is a state of mind.  Even though her life changed instantly and unexpectedly, she decided to find happiness wherever she ended up.  She’s found happiness on a hog farm on Kaua’i!  

    To see additional episodes of Famiy Ingredients and to see reruns of this episode go online to pbshawaii.org, and search for Fiddlehead
    Additional re-runs of this episode on PBS Hawaii are:
    Wednesdays at 7:30pm & 11:30pm, (11/22, 11/29, 12/6, 12/13, 12/20, 12/27)
    Sundays at 4:30pm, (11/26, 12/3, 12/10, 12/17, 12/24, 12/31)