I met John Cadman at the Breadfruit Festival on Kauai in early September. He was wearing a vintage aloha shirt, rubber slippahs, and a recently-woven lau hala hat to keep the sun off his pale face.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a little haole,” he said, using the common word in Hawaii for “white person.” “And here I was introducing breadfruit to Hawaiians at Kamehameha Schools.”
Breadfruit—called `ulu in Hawaiian—was once as predominant as taro but lost favor throughout the decades until, today, very few people know how to cook with it. John is part of a collective aimed at changing that. Working in a food service position at the all-Hawaiian school, Kamehameha, John added `ulu to the menu.
“Potato is a four-letter word,” he said as he cut up chunks of `ulu and added it to a blender in which he was making chocolate `ulu pudding. He was referring to the reputation of `ulu being bland.
On a griddle, John fried up a banana `ulu pancakes. “Ulu is just the greatest. My love and admiration for `ulu is a whole level beyond that for mango and avocado,” he said. “It’s the greatest food in the world. It’s versatile. It grows anywhere. It’s tolerant. It’s just phenomenal. But most `ulu is dropping to the ground and rotting. It’s a tragedy.”
Another tragedy, according to John, was the Mutiny on the Bounty, the doomed expedition by Captain Bligh to take breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies. About a year ago, John was asked to give a talk on breadfruit to some farmers on Maui. That was a turning point for him. Before that, “All I knew about breadfruit was Mutiny on the Bounty,” he said. “Let’s have a moment of silence for the thousands of `ulu trees lost in the mutiny.”
In researching his talk, John realized the potential benefits of working with `ulu—it’s sustainable, it’s farm-to-table, and it provides food security.
There is no perfect time to pick `ulu. The fruit can be used when it’s immature, mature and ripe. But the trick is knowing what to do with it during each phase. “I have a raging sweet tooth,” John said. So, he veered toward waiting until the fruit ripened and softened—that’s when it gets sweet—and making desserts.
Enter Pono Pies, John’s new business venture in which he makes various flavors of `ulu pie. Unfortunately, John didn’t make pie at last month’s Breadfruit Festival. But the pudding and pancakes were anything but bland and good enough to get me to call John when I visited Maui, where he’s lived for the past 30 years.
The first thing he offered me when I arrived at the Hawaii Taro Burger factory where John makes his pies was a slice of—appropriately enough--taro `ulu pie.
“No dairy. No processed sugar. No wheat. No eggs. No GMO,” he said. “I call it guilt-free from Maui.”
“I call it downright good,” I said after one bite. (Later, there would be a lilikoi `ulu tasting, and I’d practically melt in a heap of `ulu awesomeness.)
Healthy and dessert aren’t usually words you’d find in the same sentence. But Pono Pies is a whole new way of approaching desserts. The breadfruit is so sweet that it doesn’t need sugar. He uses almond milk instead of cow milk and coconut oil in place of butter. And the crust is made of three ingredients—coconut, macadamia nuts and dates. If it weren’t for the steamed `ulu, this dessert would be considered raw. If it weren’t for the honey, it would be considered vegan.
By the time I arrived on Maui a few weeks after the Breadfruit Festival, John had left his secure position at Kamehameha Schools to give his new business his full effort, which, as you can imagine, is ignited with such passion that if you didn’t know better, you’d think he was on a sugar high. He’s placed his pies at Down to Earth in Kahului and Mana Foods in Paia. His pies are on the restaurant menus at Café O Lei and Maui Brick Oven Pizza in Kihei, Tommy Bahama in Wailea, Flatbread Pizza in Paia. And by the time you read this, he’ll probably be selling Pono Pies to McDonald’s, which, now that I think about it, would be a good thing, indeed.
In addition to the taro `ulu flavor, John also makes lilikoi `ulu pie and for the holidays, he’s planning pumpkin `ulu. (Get your order in now.)
It’s a good thing John’s pies aren’t on Kauai, because I’d eat an entire lilikoi `ulu pie for breakfast every, single day. But, then again, the ingredients in John’s pies are healthy right? Indeed, `ulu is known as a good source of dietary fiber, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, thiamine and niacin. And, it’s gluten-free.
I find myself drinking the Kool-Aid here. Only it’s `ulu-flavored. Because I’m all set to join John in preaching `ulu’s goodness as the greatest food in the world. All it would take is a few more slices of `ulu pie—lilikoi, please.
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