Nan Piianaia, food historian, writer, founder of the local Slow Food movement in Hawaii and proponent of fresh food, farmers’ markets and maintaining cooking traditions, died January 29 after a long illness, at the age of 67.
Piianaia, is remembered as knowledgeable – particularly about Japan’s food and its culinary history and culture – and generous with her contacts and expertise, ever bringing people together to learn from each other and carry out projects to further the future of farming, sustainability and artisanal foods.
Writer and farmer’s market proponent Joan Namkoong recalled a group tour of Japan organized by Piianaia a few years ago. “I learned so much from her,” Namkoong said. “Nan was a foodie but not the sort that had to be at the newest restaurant or trying the latest food trend. She was a food intellectual, a historian, (who) embraced the cultural aspects of food as well as good food itself.”
Namkoong and others agreed that Hawaii’s Slow Food groups owe their existence to Piianaia’s guidance. It was Piianaia who convened the first meeting, at Fujioka’s Wine Bar in 2002.
“She was the founding member… and such an enthusiastic supporter of local food,” said Laurie Carlson, publisher of Honolulu Weekly, who became an officer of Slow Food. Today Slow Food has grown on the island to four local convivia (chapters) — Hawii, O’ahu, Kaua’i and a student chapter at Kapi’iolani Community College. Piiania headed the 200-member Hawaii convivia until two years ago.
Piianaia took groups of local farmers and food producers to Slow Food’s biennial international Terra Madre meeting in Italy, introducing the international community to Island taro and poi and Big Island honey. She also helped organize farm and ranch tours at home.
Piianaia not only enjoyed cooking and entertaining, she loved to teach and thought it was important that young people be introduced to the kitchen early. “She taught many children in Waimea to cook,” said Namkoong.
Piianaia was devoted to exploring the history of Island foods. She wrote an extensive oral history of food and food businesses along the Kona coast.
Three years ago, she worked with Monte Richards of Kahua Ranch, shaping a series of interviews into a history of his life. “I’ll forever remember what she did for me. I have a lot of grateful respect for her. She made it so easy to work with her,” said Richards, who said the success of the project is a tribute to Piianaia’s skill as an interviewer, editor and writer.
Piianaia was born Nancy Foskett Nov. 20, 1943 in Boston, Mass., and grew up in Lexington, Mass. She took a degree at Skidmore College in 1965 and came to Hawaii’s in 1968 to pursue Asian Studies at the East-West Center; she also studied at Doshisha Women’s College, Kyoto, Japan, and the California Culinary Academy.
She interned at famed Chez Panisse and returned to Hawaii’s to cater from her home, perfect recipes with repeated testing and teach cooking.
A memorial celebration will be held February 28 at Kahua Ranch on the Big island.
By Wanda A. Adams
Click here to view the article first published in the Honolulu Advertiser.