Lunching with One of Hawaii’s Real ‘Descendants’

By Julia Flynn Siler, first published in the Wall Street Journal‘s Speakeasy blog on 3/12/2012

Julia Flynn Siler and Her Royal Highness Princess Abigail Kawananakoa.

A few days before heading to Honolulu on book tour for “Lost Kingdom,” I got a phone call from the assistant to Her Royal Highness Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, the woman who is the most direct descendant of the last queen of Hawaii. If the monarchy had not been overthrown in 1893, Princess Abigail today might well have become Hawaii’s queen.

My Conversion to Liking Breadfruit: “I’ve been ulu-cized!”

When I arrived at a garden near the town of Captain Cook, on the big island of Hawaii, to attend a Breadfruit Festival in late September, I was a skeptic.

Prize-winning breadfruit tart at the inaugural Breadfruit Festival: Photo by Julia Flynn Siler

Beforehand, I’d talked to one of the world’s leading experts, the Breadfruit Institute’s Director, Diane Ragone PhD., who had told me she hadn’t cared for it when she first tried it. I’d learned from the Breadfruit Institute’s own website about the difficulties faced by Captain Bligh in fulfilling his mission of introducing breadfruit plants to the Caribbean (during the infamous mutiny on the bounty, the mutineers tossed the trees overboard.) I’d even found a discussion on the gardening website GardenWeb under lists of the “five WORST tropical fruits,” with one writer pronouncing breadfruit “nauseous.”

Meeting the Alice Waters of Hawai‘i: Chef Alan Wong

“Be sure to eat on the flight” the oft-repeated joke goes, “because the airplane meal is likely to be the best you’ll have on your trip to Hawai‘i.”

Honolulu magazine’s October cover story on Hawaiian regional cuisine traces that  jibe about the Aloha State’s supposed lack of gourmet dining to Bon Appetit’s former editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild, who advised readers to enjoy the meal on the plane, because it was the best food they’d get on a Hawai‘i vacation.

How Novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings landed a role opposite George Clooney in “The Descendants”

The statistics are daunting: less than two percent of all the books optioned for the screen ever enter production. Far fewer make it into theaters. My first book, The House of Mondavi was optioned twice, but never came close to becoming a movie.

That’s why it’s been a vicarious thrill to watch Kaui Hart Hemmings’ first novel, The Descendants, approach its release date of Nov. 18th as a  movie from Fox Searchlight.

Novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of "The Descendants"

The Descendants was Kaui’s debut novel. A dark comedy about a dysfunctional family, it was first published in 2007 to critical acclaim. The New York Times called it “refreshingly wry.”

Kava in South Kona

The 'Awa plant, also known as Kava

I caught a glimpse of the sign out of the corner of my eye: “Ma’s Nic Nats & Kava Stop.” I made a quick U-turn on the Mamalahao Highway in South Kona and headed back, pulling across from a laundromat where children chased each other outside as their parents waited for clothes to dry.

From the outside, the kava bar didn’t look like much. But it was starting to rain and I had another hour before I could check into my hotel room. So I climbed out of my car and walked in.

Searching for Kau Kau

I first came across the word kaukau in a note that the Hawaiian Princess Ka‘iulani wrote to Robert Louis Stevenson more than a century ago.

The Scottish novelist and his family had arrived in Honolulu in the afternoon of January 24, 1889, and the beautiful princess dropped them a short note, inviting them to her family’s estate and adding that “Papa promises “good Scotch kaukau….

To try to track down the word’s meaning, I went to the Hawaiian Electronic Library Web site, which searches several Hawaiian dictionaries simultaneously. But because Hawaiian words can have multiple meanings depending on their diacritical marks (which weren’t used in the 19th century) the modern Web site offered an array of possible spellings and definitions.

Mo’ Bob Mon …

The elegant Mondavi arts center, above, is a dramatic addition to the rural landscape of Davis — and it will soon be joined by the Robert Mondavi Institute, depicted in an artists’ rendering below.

Anyone driving east from San Francisco on Highway 80, the 10-lane transcontinental highway to Nevada and points east, can’t miss the name Mondavi. In California’s Central Valley, where the Mondavi family first made its name in the grape wholesaling business in the 1920s and then became America’s foremost wine dynasty, Robert and Margrit Mondavi have passed into legend – so much so that their names are heralded for all to see from the freeway.
This past week, I gave talks on my book, The House of Mondavi, in Sacramento and the nearby town of Davis, where the University of California’s renowned viticulture program is based. Davis is home to both the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts and the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science. You can see the sign for the Mondavi Center on one side of the I-80 and the construction site for the new RMI on the other.
When I told a good friend from Alabama about these author events, she teased, “Oh, Julie, it’s just Mo’ Bob Mon …” — meaning that talking about the late Bob Mondavi had become a long-standing routine. In fact, it’s been Mo’ Bob Mon for more than 15 months now, and that’s why I was was not much looking forward to what had threatened to be a long and taxing day in the Central Valley.
But to my surprise, the two events were some of the liveliest and most though-provoking I’ve yet attended. The first took place at a breakfast for about 50 members and guests of the Capital Region Family Business Center, a non-profit group made up of second-, third-, and even a few fourth- and fifth-generation members of local family businesses.

Copia chairman asks: “Can it survive?”

Sparse crowds at Copia have contributed to its financial challenges.
(Photo from – Owen Brewer / Sacramento Bee file, 2002)

Despite my intention to take a summer sabbatical, an investigative story that appeared on the front page of last Sunday’s Sacramento Bee brought me back to my keyboard. The story raises some new questions about Robert Mondavi’s philanthropic legacy, a subject I explored in The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty.
An enterprising reporter for The Bee named Andrew McIntosh broke the news that Copia, the nonprofit brainchild of Robert Mondavi devoted to wine, food and the arts in downtown Napa, was bailed out by a state-owned bank that might now be liable if the center fails to recoup its losses. In the mid-1990s, Robert Mondavi had donated $20 million to found Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. Ever since the 80,000-square-foot building opened in 2001, the center has struggled with low attendance, financial troubles, and a confused mission.

King Lear and The House of Mondavi

lear.jpg rmking.jpg
Two kings: Ian Holm as Lear and Robert Mondavi.

Photo of Holm from the University of London; photo of Mondavi by Mike Kepka/

What can Shakespeare teach us about a troubled family business?
That’s a question I’ll try to answer at a discussion hosted by a long-lasting and large book group in Burlingame, Calif., this fall. Over the summer, the group has decided to read Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, alongside my book, The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty.
To prepare myself for the evening, I’ve checked out the DVD of the Royal National Theatre’s celebrated production of King Lear with Ian Holm (which I had the great fortune to see performed in London in 1997) from our local public library. I’ve also checked out the Cliff Notes on King Lear, as well as the text of the play itself (the Pelican Shakespeare edition of the 1608 Quarto and 1632 Folio Texts).

Edible Portland

David Schargel, in blue, offers “epicurean excursion” participants a sampling of Portland’s culinary prowess; below, a sampling of the single-source chocolates from Sweet Masterpiece, one of the excursion’s ports of call.
(Photos by Aaron Rabideau)

The last stop on my paperback tour for The House of Mondavi was Portland, Oregon, where I can truthfully, if somewhat reluctantly, report that I found what seems to be a city even more obsessed with good food than my own San Francisco Bay Area.
Although I only spent about 48 hours in Portland, I managed to pack in a whirlwind tour of the city’s culinary delights, thanks, in large part, to a couple of hours spent with David Schargel, founder of Portland Walking Tours, and his company’s recent offering: an “epicurean excursion.”
I’d been tempted by an email pitch from David’s public relations firm. Knowing I’d have a few hours between interviews and my talk at Powell’s City of Books, I plunked my $59 fee down for a guided tour of the city’s marvelous Pearl District, a former industrial area now populated by all sorts of artisan food producers.