Story by Sheila Sarhangi
Photo by Ann Cecil
When Daniel Anthony was a kid in Wai‘anae, he’d get sent to the family’s taro farm as punishment for bad behavior. “I was pretty naughty,” he says, running his hand through his short mohawk. “I probably spent a good quarter of my childhood pulling weeds.” He had challenges at school, too, and when his attempt at community college failed, he found an unlikely position at age 18 selling natural stone to luxury hotels.
Ten years later, in June 2008, Anthony’s first daughter was born, which prompted him to quit the six-figure-salary job. “I didn’t want to tell her what it meant to be Hawaiian,” he says. “I wanted to show her.” (Anthony isn’t Hawaiian by blood but his wife is.) So in 2009 he vowed to pound 10,000 pounds of taro in one year. With his papa ku‘i‘ai (wooden board) and stone pounder in hand, he made poi at more than 150 events across the Islands—from corporate conferences to baby lü‘au, even at the Smithsonian’s “Hawai‘i Day” in Washington, DC. By the following June he’d passed his target—by 5,000 pounds.
Anthony’s poi isn’t like what you find in a local grocery. He pounds taro only when it reaches its peak maturity, before its starch turns to sugar. And he dilutes it with only 50 percent water (versus 85 percent at some lu‘au, he says). He also pounds pa‘i‘ai, taro without water, which is viscous and sticky as bubble gum. In the last six months his company, Mana Ai (meaning “powerful food”), shipped pa‘i‘ai to customers in nine states. The irony that his punishment for being a rascal kid wound up becoming his career isn’t lost on him.
But trouble still seems to find the outspoken 32-year-old. The Health Department wags its finger at him for using a traditional wood board and stone pounder instead of metal. Security guards at the Hawai‘i Convention Center have asked Anthony, who wears a malo (loincloth) when pounding, to cover up. For Anthony these are just examples of how Hawai‘i still needs to accept its own traditions, traditions that worked for hundreds of years. “What do you eat before you do hula?” he asks. “Taco Bell? What do you bust out when you’re canoe paddling? A Kudos? The fuel of the Hawaiian culture is this food—and it tastes so good.”