by Logan Cooper
The dog was one ugly son of a bitch. I was crouched by a vine-slung banyan tree watching the thing’s massive chest heave in and out. Water dripped from the canopy, leaving little dark splotches down the length of its seven-foot body. My lip curled involuntarily to match the dog’s own unsettling rictus as I craned sideways to get a better look at the massive bone spikes jutting from its back and neck. Its thick, ragged claws led down to two sets of tiny wheels, somewhat ruining the menacing effect.
The beast was an amazingly detailed animatronic, built for the film Predators by the wonderfolks from KNB EFX Group. We were shooting on location in Hawaii and this was part of the final payoff for the couple of months I had spent scouting and securing filming spots on the Big Island.
Before the 200 crew members showed up, before we started building roads and pads for our semitrailers, before the explosions, the pitfalls, the freaky dogs and the alien spacecraft, I had spent weeks tearing around in four-wheel drive vehicles, rappelling down waterfalls, squeezing through lava tubes and getting completely lost in the eerie haze of eucalyptus groves. Some films just have better perks than others. Everywhere I went, it was like being immersed in a lush, open-air salad bar—in which food is aggressively inescapable.
One afternoon I was attacked by an avocado. I was on Kauai at the time, minding my own business, snapping some pictures of an interesting rock formation. With barely a rustle of warning, I was walloped by a huge, black-skinned Linda the size of a grapefruit. A bed of yellow guava broke my fall and I was able to console myself with a restorative impromptu picnic. That delicious avocado learned a valuable lesson about the repercussions of assault.
Another time, I was tracking a small bosky river near Mount Waialeale. I stopped to retie my boot and looked up to see a cyborg of doom barreling toward me at full speed. After a mouth-drying second, my brain resolved the blur into a slobbery dog. Unlike the film set’s hellhound, though, this one was built on a much smaller scale and outfitted with GPS tracking equipment, a Kevlar vest and a steel collar-slash-sternum guard. A sharp whistle pulled mecha-Cujo up short and I noticed more dogs, as well as two young locals, nearby.
Turns out, that much like Texas, Hawaii has a feral hog problem and these gentlemen and their dogs were trying to rectify it. It was the end of the day, and having had no luck in pigville, they let me tag along while they wrangled some less tusk-y edibles. We headed to an area where one of the guys had earlier spotted a trove of young fiddlehead ferns, but on the way, his friend got really excited about a mess of wild watercress. It grows in little rafts in pools in the river, and my companions waded in hip-deep to scoop up several armfuls of it. The cress was thinner and longer than what I’m used to seeing here, but it had a similar grassy, peppery bite.
We got back on the trail of the ferns, or ho‘i‘o, as they’re known there. These curled and feathery treats turned out to be one of my favorite finds on the islands. The plants themselves can be quite large, but you just snap off the tender nautilus tips for eating. They’re great steamed, blanched or stir-fried, but you can also eat them raw; the shoots are crisp, sweet and salty, with a flavor not unlike a pear crossed with seaweed.
Executing production contracts on the islands was a lot more fun than in other places I’ve worked. I’ve reached deals over coffee, beer and even freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, but that all seemed to fall short compared to working out filming details at the Big Island’s iconic Waipio Valley. The valley was the seat of government and home to many early Hawaiian kings. It’s still considered sacred in those parts and any work there requires a light touch…and apparently dinner.
During negotiations, I was invited to visit one of the supervising tribe members. His kids had gone out and collected a small sack of kukui nuts from a huge tree behind his house. His wife roasted the fat, tricorne-shaped delicacies, then scooped out the mocha flesh and mixed it with salt to make a condiment called ‘inamona.
The ‘inamona was tossed with ruby cubes of tuna, shaved onion, limu seaweed and a bit of chili to bring together a batch of poke, the memory of which has me contemplating a quick round of airline tickets. They served the poke with poi made from a locally grown taro root that was pounded to a smooth lilac paste and left to briefly ferment. After that meal I probably would have agreed to an embarrassing list of demands, but fortunately everyone proved to be quite reasonable.
I’m just scratching the culinary surface of the place, too. There were wild bitter melon vines stewed with chicken and creamy hearts of palm lopped straight from the tops of swaying peach palms, and ‘opihi (limpets) pried from the rocks during low tide, grilled and finished with a little sweet butter. There’s the pungent fragrance of lilikoi that lends credence to the passion fruit name, and the enchanting white pineapple that’s so delicate it can’t be shipped off the island. Hawaii is without doubt an archipelago of milk and honey.
I should point out that I had permission to forage whenever I did so. As you might imagine, some landowners can get a little prickly about passing tourists trampling potentially delicate flora to sack up a bunch of their lumpy lemons and poha berries. While the island is a wonderland of abundance, it’s a good idea to check for property lines before any scavenging adventures. Lest you have mechanical dogs unleashed on you.