Last night the Kansas City Supper Club convened for an event organized by Winifred Wright at The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange, where Chef Howard Hanna prepared a Samoan meal. Nearly forty food lovers gathered for this feast featuring dishes representative of the chef’s heritage and culture.
I didn’t copy down the traditional names for each dish and drink, but they were listed on a mirror in the event room where we were seated.
The meal began with a brown beverage called ‘ava, a ceremonial drink made from a dried root that is mixed with water and strained before serving. The taste was earthy and slightly bitter.
A ceviche-like seafood salad arrived as the first course. Because Hanna didn’t have access to all of the fresh native seafood available in Samoa, he improvised with scallops. This light salad dressed with citrus refreshed the palate and whet the appetite for heartier fare.
Main courses and sides included roast pork and chicken, canned corned beef that was sweet and surprising delicious, starchy taro root prepared similarly to mashed potatoes, and a mixture of seasoned greens with kale that approximated the type of greens used in Samoan cuisine. Bananas cooked in sweet coconut milk rounded out the meal.
The meal was a delicious introduction to traditional foods that everyone seemed to enjoy. The serving dishes went back mostly empty to the kitchen. Lively conversation, opinions, and jokes added to the fun social atmosphere. For my first outing with the KC Supper Club, it was a pleasure to meet a number of people that I had only interacted with online. The gathering reminded me how food is a social connector where people of different backgrounds can sit, bond, and learn about each other.
After the event, I stayed behind and chatted with Howard at the chef’s counter near the kitchen. We spoke about business briefly before discussing our respective Samoan and Thai heritage. Howard mentioned how he had grown up in Manhattan, Kansas as a kid with Samoan roots and a culture that extends over several thousand years.
The food we ate tonight was not an exact replication of what a traveler would find in Samoa, but these dishes were authentic. Authentic cuisine is a slippery notion. The ingredients, tools, geography, and conditions of a food’s origins and cultural associations will naturally vary when exported and prepared elsewhere. Using what is at hand, isn’t that authentic and true to the spirit of any cuisine?
The Thai dishes I make at home are derivative of my mother’s cooking and adapted to my taste. Her Thai cooking is similar to the food prepared by her mother and sisters half a world away, but it’s not the same food she grew up eating. Mom and I don’t have access to food from the land and sea there with the same freshness or local terroir, as the French say. We both cook food with a lineage that stretches across time and distance, but we take it in new directions based on memory, technique, and circumstance.
Similarly, Howard channels Samoan food memories from his relatives and direct experiences from eating food in Samoa as a child. He spoke about the power of cultural memory and how it shapes his approach to preparing traditional dishes for family, friends, and guests. Last night’s dinner was a rare opportunity to experience a fleeting taste of a distant culture’s cuisine in the heart of Kansas City.