How the Locals Luau

How the locals luau - Beach parks are popular for luaus

How the Locals Luau

How the locals luau - Beach parks are popular for luaus
How the locals luau – Beach parks are popular for luaus

The tradition of a luau as a social gathering meant to unite people remains a part of the local culture in Hawaii. The modern luau has a few differences from the luaus of the past, but significant elements remain the same. Let’s take a look at how the locals luau.

A Brady Bunch Luau

The Brady Bunch at a luau with their flower lei
The Brady Bunch luau

If you’re old enough to recall the Brady Bunch television series, you probably remember their adventures in Hawaii. When non-locals think of a Hawaiian luau, what comes to mind is the type of luau similar to the one attended by the Brady Bunch: A feast held at night, under tiki torches, swaying palm trees, and stars. A party that includes hula dancers in grass skirts, fire dancers, fruity drinks with umbrellas, and a roasted pig on a long buffet table full of food. When you take part in one of the terrific luau dinner shows, you experience the same magic seen on that iconic Brady Bunch episode.

The Brady-Bunch-type luau, tailored for tourists, movies, and TV specials, are fun and memorable. They are not, however, representative of how Hawaii locals really put on a luau.

A Bit of Luau History

Hula dancers and musicians ca. 1907
Hula dancers and musicians circa 1907. They really were having fun.

Before the reign of King Kamehameha II, men and women were forbidden to share meals. Being a forward thinker and unifier, he broke the taboo, and the luau as we know it began.

Meant to be a large celebration of unification, community, and kinship, the luau became an integral part of Hawaiian culture. The name “luau” comes from the young leaves of the taro plant. When combined with coconut milk and some type of meat, the young leaves turn into a delicious meal. This dish was served at the celebrations, hence the name “luau.”

During the mid-20th-century Hawaiian tourism boom, luaus became popular with visitors. The novelty of an outdoor party at night, filled with food, fragrant flowers, and music, turned the commercial luau into the tourist event that it remains to this day.

The Modern Local Luau

The luau tradition remains very much alive, and Hawaii locals find plenty of excuses to have one.

If you live in Hawaii for any period, you will inevitably receive an invitation to attend a luau. The reasons to hold a luau are many. The most common reasons to celebrate are school graduations, weddings, birthdays, and the much-loved first-birthday “baby luau.”

The Wedding Luau

Groom with bride wearing lei
This is probably their rehearsal.

Often a little fancier than a baby luau, the wedding luau still has the significant elements of a baby luau, but with a more formal touch. Held outdoors, a wedding luau may have all the traditions of a typical wedding reception (a bouquet throw, first dance, wedding cake, and toasts) as well as the music and food of a traditional luau. It is a wedding reception, done Hawaiian style.



How the Locals Luau – The Baby Luau

In most ancient cultures around the world, the lack of medical technology meant that having a child survive its first year was an important milestone. The Hawaiians were no different. Children who were able to reach the age of one defied the odds and were deemed worthy of a celebration. The tradition remains part of the modern local culture.

Hawaii is a multi-cultural melting pot, and the baby luau is celebrated by people of all ethnicities, not just those who identify as Hawaiian. Some baby luaus are lavish affairs, with a hundred or more guests. Locals may even spend more on their baby luaus than on their weddings!

Unlike commercial luaus held at night, most baby luaus begin in the daytime and can extend into the night. The baby luau is not just a celebration of life, but a way to formally introduce a baby into the community. By holding a large gathering, family and friends can come to meet their new member and pay their respects.

The Graduation Luau

Happy grad with a few lei
Happy grad with a few lei

In Hawaii, it’s often not about what college you attended. The locals will gauge who you know and what your socioeconomic background is by the high school you graduated from. A common question the locals have for new people they meet is, “What year you grad?” Which translates into, “What year did you graduate high school and which high school did you go to?” High school graduations are a big deal in the islands.

Graduation luaus are all about the leis. The leis are meant to wish the graduate success and a good, long life. At their luau, the graduate can be found under a mound of leis almost as high as their head. Very often, they find themselves hanging excess leis over their arms just to give themselves breathing room!

Don’t ever go to a local graduation without a lei to give to the graduate– whether the lei is made of fresh flowers, candy, cloth, or money doesn’t matter. Just bring one. It’s bad manners not to bring a lei to a graduation luau.

How the Locals Luau – Logistics

The Planning

Hawaii, and especially Oahu, is notorious for the small square footage of its homes. Given the tall condos and apartment buildings in the heart of Honolulu, where do the locals hold an outdoor feast with 100 of their closest family and friends?

We get creative. Many utilize Hawaii’s beautiful beaches and parks, reserving the space months in advance. There are also well-known beach houses or ranch lands that are available to rent for such celebrations. Others ask family members or friends who have large yards or empty lots to host their luau parties.

Tent and outdoor party rental services are popular in Hawaii because of all these luaus. However, some families choose to simply purchase their own tents, tables, and chairs and use them as family property for all family luaus. Everybody is someone’s cousin…

The Dress Code

The “dress code” for most local luaus is casual. Extremely casual. Flip flops casual. Local folks tend not to fret about formal wear, especially the men. The male idea of luau attire is khaki shorts (board shorts if it’s a beach luau), flip flops, and an aloha shirt.

For wedding luaus, the men might dress up a bit more. They may even wear long pants and shoes. The Hawaiian shirt, though, is still the norm even for formal occasions.

Women sometimes dress up slightly more than men, with some even wearing sandals instead of flip flops.

How Locals Luau – The Entertainment

Fire knife dance
Some people have really talented cousins

Unlike the extravagant luaus staged for tourists, the entertainment for a local luau doesn’t typically include fire dancers, unless there’s a talented cousin in the family. If there’s professional entertainment at a luau, it often consists of a local band or singer, sometimes a DJ and a dance floor, and occasionally a hula performance, especially if there’s a talented cousin or auntie in the family.

Many women (and men) in Hawaii grew up learning to dance hula at one point or another in their lives. There is always an aunt, sister, niece, or family friend who is either a professional or expert hula dancer, or someone’s kid willing to dance. Although they don’t usually wear grass skirts during their dance, the dancing is just as graceful and beautiful.

The most common luau entertainment, however, is when a few guests break out a ukulele or two, maybe a guitar, and the singing starts.

The Food

The food at a local luau typically includes some use of taro. Food is either wrapped and steamed in young taro leaves, as with a laulau, or involves the taro root, as with poi.

Taro brand poi
There will be poi

Other traditional luau dishes involve pork and chicken. A dish called kalua pig, shredded slow-cooked smoked pork is regularly served alone or with finely shredded bits of cabbage. Another very common luau dish is a simple chicken stew served with rice noodles, called chicken long rice. Fresh poke is a must, cubed fish tossed with chopped seaweed and salt. Roasted pork is often accompanied by a type of salad consisting of salmon bits with chopped tomatoes and onions called lomi lomi salmon. Rice is usually the starch of choice at a luau.

Who cooks all this good food? Hopefully, the person throwing the luau has an aunt or uncle—or five—who’s willing to do the cooking. Sometimes, family and friends pitch in and do the work together. Sometimes, more ambitious families will build an imu, or underground barbecue pit, to slowly roast the pork served at their luau.

To avoid the effort of digging an imu, many locals find themselves catering their luau. There are caterers specializing in luau food on all of the main islands.

Food at a luau also reflects the multicultural nature of Hawaii. Along with traditional luau food, you’re likely to find dishes from other cultures. Chinese noodles, Korean barbecue beef, and Portuguese doughnuts called malasadas have become luau staples. Cake and ice cream have also been incorporated into luaus, especially for weddings and birthdays.

The Charm of the Local Luau

There are many venues in Hawaii where a good old Brady Bunch-style luau, complete with hula dancers in grass skirts and a fire knife show, can be enjoyed. Even local people will find themselves enjoying these productions at time or another, while entertaining out of town guests or for a company holiday party, for example.

The typical local luau lacks the elaborate, highly-produced feel that the big commercial luau venues offer, but what they lack in extravagance, they make up for in heart. Local luaus retain the community unifying experience that King Kamehameha II set out to create in the first true Hawaiian luaus. A place where friends and family can come together to celebrate the gift called life.

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