My part-Hawaiian grandmother makes wonderful rice pilaf. It’s a recipe she learned from her Portuguese mother and she made it often when we came to dinner, usually with a ham. Buttery and full of mushrooms, light brown with beef stock and slightly sticky, to my sister Heidi and me the rice was something special we looked forward to whenever we made the rare trip from Maui to Oahu.

But six or more months can feel like a lifetime to a kid, and with so many new words in so many languages rattling around in a head, it’s easy to get confused.

Once when I was about six and Heidi three, our grandparents met our family at the airport. Heidi and I were jumping around like two puppies newly freed from a kennel: sitting on the baggage carousel, running around and around Grandpa’s legs, climbing up the short rock wall and walking along it—I’m sure we were driving the adults nuts. That’s when Grammie said the magic word: dinner.

“Grammie! Grammie! You going make rice?” I danced.

“Yeah, Grammie! Rice!” Heidi sang.

“Rice? What’re you talking about, rice?” Grammie said.

“You know, the kind you make,” I said.

“What are you kids talking about?”

Heidi and I looked at each other. It starts with a p… “You know, that pilau rice!”

“Pilau rice!” Heidi crowed. “Pilau rice!”

My non-Pidgin speaking mother looked confused. The blood drained from my father’s face. My grandfather looked nonplussed. And Grammie went nuclear.

“PILAU rice! Pilau RICE! I do NOT cook PILAU RICE!”

Heidi and I were puzzled. We knew we were in trouble, but didn’t know why. “But we love your pilau rice, Grammie!”

“Yeah,” said Heidi, “We love it! We love pilau rice.”

The penny dropped. “Pilaf,” Grandpa said. “It’s rice pilaf.”

“Yeah, that’s what we said! Pilau rice!”

“No,” he corrected. “Not pilau, pilaf! Rice pilaf! Say it.”

“Pilau, I mean pilaf, rice pilaf,” we repeated.

But to this day, in my head, I still think of it as pilau rice!

Pilau: (nvs) Hawaiian for rot, stench, rottenness; to stink; putrid, spoiled, rotten, foul, decomposed. We couldn’t have come up with a worse insult if we tried.

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