Story by Sarah Rose
Photo by Elyse Butler
“Don’t send a firetruck. We’re just having a lu‘au,” says a hot-line caller at 6 p.m. on a Thursday night. The Honolulu Fire Department makes a note of the caller’s address so that when the smoke rises from the yard, they don’t need to rush over. It’s the middle of the week, so there might only be five calls like this one. But in the run-up to a big lu‘au day like Thanksgiving, the board might receive hundreds of calls letting HFD know that the imu’s about to be lit.
Most Hawai‘i residents eat lü‘au at some point—if not at one of the resort hotels’ shindigs, then with the ‘ohana (family) in their own backyards. The focal point of any good lü‘au is the imu—a cooking pit dug into the ground. Cooking by imu is traditional, labor-intensive and the only way to do lü‘au right. You dig the day before, insert your food of choice (usually a whole pig) and slow-cook it overnight. Lighting the imu is the pregame show, a ritualistic tailgate party that lasts until dawn. “It’s always fun,” says Captain Terry Seelig, HFD’s public information officer. “You sit around and watch dirt.” The lü‘au begins when the layers of burlap, banana leaves and ti leaves wrapping the meat are finally peeled away and the succulent aroma is released in a cloud of steam.
As the fire burns down, the rocks collapse into the pit and slow-cook the meat, which creates a lot of smoke; it’s the sort of thing likely to get the fire department called to your house—unless, that is, you called them first. Hawai‘i’s fire departments are likely the only ones in the country that have an imu hot line.
What if you don’t call the hot line—(808) 523-4411—before you start the big dig? If a neighbor complains, HFD will send a truck, and it’s a sad day for everyone—firefighters included—if they have to douse the imu. But there’s no regular rolling “imu patrol,” checking out every column of smoke it sees, says Seelig. “Can you imagine? I don’t think the patrol would get past the first imu. The imu is a part of the party. How far do you think you’d get before you’d want to stay all night?”