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My Poke Story

by Gregg Porter

Gregg writes about other things besides music. Here’s something about poke (po-kay)”

The first time we went back to visit my sweetie’s family on O`ahu (I had already met them on one of their visits to Seattle), we flew into Honolulu, picked up a rental car, and drove across the Ko`olau range to their home on the Windward Side. I was immediately invited to sit with her dad out on the lanai, where pupus would be served.

He handed me a set of disposable chopsticks (with a courteous question as to whether or not I was okay with chopsticks – which I was), and in front of us was a dish of ahi poke. From earlier conversations, I knew what this dish was, though I had not encountered it before. In fact, no morsel of raw fish had ever before passed my lips, having grown up in Iowa – land of meat and potatoes…cooked meat, of course.

The voices in my mind, rather active under most circumstances, went into overdrive at this point. First, I assumed that the menu selections were designed by her father to be a test of his only daughter’s new beau – how will I handle unfamiliar foods? Any kind of future that I envisioned with his offspring would depend greatly upon this culinary battle (“Iron Chef” was not yet available for regular viewing, mind you).

But the loudest voice was the one that wanted me to be certain that I knew I was being expected to eat raw tuna. Raw tuna. Did I mention, “raw”? As in, not having ever been heated to any degree, uncooked, no oven or fry pan exposure, raw? On the outside, I played it cool as I deftly picked up the smallest piece of poke I could find (without making a display of digging around for it) with my chopsticks and slowly lifted it toward my mouth. Inside, there was a screaming voice (with a distinctly Midwestern accent), yelling to me: “Hey. Hey! Iowa Boy? You know that’s RAW FISH, right? RAW?!? You don’t eat raw anything!” – and variations of the same message, over and over, sometimes even in a bit more vulgar style.

Mind you, this was all happening in a very brief time-frame, as the quivering little chunk of redness was heading upward. Finally, with her test-imposing papa smiling at me and an internal voice about to pass out from hysteria, I ate it.

And loved it.

I loved the flavor – the oniony, spicy marinade, the slight nuttiness of the inamona, the sharp sea-salt, and of course, the richness of the fish itself; I loved the texture – the snappy crunch of the ogo, the melting buttery tuna, the mouth-filling moisture.

And I ate plenty of it that night. Probably much more than my share, but no one stepped in to change my behavior there – probably because they were too stunned at the sight of this Mainland Haole not only “passing the test,” but going for extra-credit points. (I should add here that there was also a dish of tako poke, which I tried but then avoided, as the rubbery texture of the octopus didn’t work for me as well.)

My beloved assumed I was just eating this food out of courtesy, until the next day when we had lunch with her Auntie, at a Waikīkī hotel buffet – and I actually chose to take more ahi poke for my plate. She did not know, however, that the voice in my head even existed, much less that it still yelled at me each time I ate poke, for the next couple of years. Nor did she know that a new voice appeared at that time, a tiny little voice at first, that said in its wee fashion: “Gee. I kinda like this stuff.” Over the next couple years, these two voices battled with each other every time ahi poke presented itself before me – but the balance of power gradually shifted, as the “hey, you – it’s RAW fish” voice grew out-shouted by the increasingly assertive one stating that “I really like this!”

Years later, and I never hear the “raw fish” voice any more, as I have tried a few other varieties of poke, sashimi, sushi and the like. It just faded away, as an annoying cough gets to a point that, after a few days’ passing, you notice that it’s no longer there. So be warned, if you put ahi poke before me, better make sure you take the portion you want first.

Oh – and to this day, the sweetie claims that her father was not in any way testing me, that they served the poke because it was one of her favorite pupus, but I’m not really convinced. And I’m keeping the extra-credits.

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