We arrived in Rarotonga, capital of the Cook Islands, six days ago. The weather has been unseasonably cool for summer–as in the 70s, brrrr–but that has not dissuaded us from consuming loads of tropical fruits, getting chummy with the 82 mosquitos who also share our rental home (they’ve turned out to be serious jerks), and swimming in the ocean as often as possible. Before you get all weird and jelly, let me remind you that this is a work-related trip. I’m spending weekdays at the National Archives sleuthing through mysterious (“miscellaneous”) boxes of unscanned documents, trying to suss out the history of changing foodways in the Cook Islands. One box I looked at on Friday contained four long-abandoned gecko eggs. Ironically, that particular box held health inspection records for bakeries and tea shops on the island.
My most exciting find of the trip so far? –the box containing information about the Au Vaine, women’s committees who, from 1926 until at least 1958, led house, village, and plantation inspections in all eleven Rarotongan districts. These Islander women were responsible for organizing a very profitable fruit export market in the Cook Islands. Working in pairs they scoured plantations for destructive roaming animals and made sure the planting operations were running smoothly. These women were not to be crossed, this is clear. One official wrote that if offenders had to face the Court or “women of the Au Vaine” they chose the Court every time. In 1928 a silver cup, the Au Vaine Cup, began to be awarded to the village who had received the highest points during the annual tutaka, or home inspection organized by the Au Vaine and judged by the Resident Commissioner, Chief Medical Officer, and other officials from New Zealand or abroad. My favorite document is addressed to the Resident Commissioner of Rarotonga, the most senior government official from New Zealand, in 1928. The leaders of Au Vaine are “requesting the honour of your presence” for tea “at your residence” next Wednesday at 8:30 am. Yes, that’s right; they are inviting him to join them for tea at his own house. Bad. Ass.
New Zealand was originally settled in the fourteenth century by Maori who launched their canoes from Rarotonga, so Cook Islanders have always been closely connected to New Zealand culturally, economically, and politically. In 1901 the Cooks were annexed by New Zealand, and in 1965 the Cook Islands became self-governing but remained in free association with New Zealand. From the late 1800s Rarotonga and several other islands in the group exported large quantities of citrus, copra, tomatoes, and bananas primarily to New Zealand, but most of that market dried up by the 1960s. Today the islands import much more food than they export (in 2013, New Zealand imports were valued at $97 million, while exports to New Zealand from the Cooks were worth $1 million). Many more Cook Islanders reside in New Zealand today than in the Cooks, but food remains an important way of staying connected to family. Native foods are one of the most important gifts taken to New Zealand relatives and large buckets of fried chicken are a favorite carry-on for the trip back to the Cooks. All important occasions are marked with a feast; traditional dishes such as taro with coconut and fish baked in umus (earthen ovens) continue to hold special status and significance alongside more recent imported dishes of rice, noodles and tinned meats.
Eating lots of local pawpaw, mangoes, coconuts, sweet bananas and passion fruit has been one of the highlights of our time in Raro. Luckily, the house we’re renting is also home to a yard full of passion fruit vines and my minions can gather the fruit whenever our stores run low (as in daily). I first tasted passion fruit in Brazil when I was there as a student missionary (yes, it was the 90s, and yes, my permed hair crackled with electricity; I looked like a crazy sunburned 12 year old teaching English). Other interesting connections: passion fruit were first discovered in South America and were named after the “passion” of the Christ. Why? I’m sure I do not know. In Brazil I mainly consumed passion fruit as delicious juice or ice cream (hence a few extra kilos as one of my souvenirs) but here we eat it fresh. The black seeds and pulp are rich in vitamins A, C, and potassium and one cup contains a whopping 25 grams of fibre. Take that, travel tummy! Passion fruit is also rich in the holy grail of nutrition, the youth-enhancing “antioxidants” and is supposed to aid in deep sleep–even with 82 mosquito bites! I’m hoping all this fruit fuels some ground-breaking writing, but so far I seem to prefer pondering the ocean and watching the palms sway as the kids play in the sand.