Maui Nei

The search for the perfect hamburger never ends. Time changes taste and availability. But what would be more appropriate in a place once noted on maps as “The Sandwich Islands”? The name was Capt. James Cook’s homage to the English earl who allegedly invented the snack to keep hunger pangs from interrupting a chess match. Hawaii Nei a piece of meat between two slices of bread? Hardly!

Food is one of those cultural touchstones that often befuddle arrivals to Hawaii. There are tales of newcomers practically starving in the old days when faced with the likes of poke, laulau, squid, poi and all the “delicacies” from the Azores, Japan, China, the Philippines and other points east and west.

Eating habits are developed early. That means, for those of us unfortunate enough to have been born elsewhere, food that echoes what came off mom’s stove. A breakfast cook once said, “Everyone wants their eggs the same way their mothers made them.”

Midwest-conditioned, meat-and-potato tastes required considerable modification before unidentifiable “stuff” and rice at every meal became desirable. Some newcomers never do adapt, even after learning that refusing the offer of food is rude in the extreme.

So tiptoe around island menus. Eat anything that someone else eats but avoid learning just what that “anything” is. In the before days, “anything” included what was being offered as a “hamburger.” This was in the days when little went on the meat besides mustard, catsup or mayonnaise. Usually all three at the same time to more effectively camouflage the meat.

Talk to Maui old-timers and you’ll hear paeans to Lucy Goo’s concoctions at her place up in Wailuku or the ground-round creations at the Maui Country Club. Newcomers found the former exotic, the latter comfortable. Others speak fondly of plate lunches eaten at Cupie’s or Sheik’s or Yama’s – cheap meat smothered in brown gravy that also engulfed the mac salad and rice. Loco moco has to be an acquired taste.

There’s a strong suspicion that old-time “hamburger” was a mystery meat. A half-century or so ago, store-bought hamburger was a ground-up hunk of the beef that was left after the butcher carved out the prime cuts. When times are tight, eat everything but the “moo.” Creative island cooks could, and did, add pork and even rabbit to the mix.

The perfect hamburger begins with the meat. Maui Cattle Co. has it down pat – good cuts of local, range-fed pipi. At home or at the more discriminating eateries, hamburgers rely on the quality of the meat going on the grill. Once, at a retro diner in Kihei, the cook was complimented on his burger, done to a turn on a classic, sheet-metal grill. The cook, a local guy with a Hawaiian first name, smiled. “I figure if the cow gives its life, I should treat it with respect.”

Once the king of cheap eats, the hamburger took on airs on Maui in the 1970s and the price went up, the arrival of national franchise fast-food dispensers notwithstanding. At about the same time McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants were built in Kahului, Jon Applegate opened The Gnu Haven in the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center.

The Gnu Haven, in today’s Koho’s location, was the first place outside the resorts on Maui to offer half-pound, kick-the-crap-out-of-$10 hamburgers. My first experience with one of these deluxe burgers was some months earlier on Oahu at Ferdinand’s on Kuhio Avenue. Midwest taste, if finances, satisfied.

In the early 1970s, the only other places on the resident side of the island where my Midwest taste was assuaged was the Harvest Restaurant next to the Woolworth’s in the Maui Mall and at Webb Beggs’ Gate 21 at the airport.

These days, big, expensive hamburgers are easy to find. The biggest difference seems to be all the junk that’s been added to the beef – special sauces, thatches of lettuce, bacon, onion rings, you-name-it. Anything and everything that hides the taste of the meat. Order a salad if you want rabbit food. By way of full disclosure, there are a couple of items that can be added to good effect – cheese, jalapenos and a thick slice of vine-ripened, local tomato.

The best burger is a delightful wedding of cow and cook. Good meat, juicy with just a hint of pink in the middle. The best ones will run you $12 or so, not including tip. If you want more for less, get a hot dog and don’t worry about what’s in it.

* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is

Maui Nei

Some arrive on Maui with full pockets and pleasant prospects. A few come with a job in hand. Others fall precipitously in love with the island and do what they can until they can do what they want. Phil Smith pays the bills by selling real estate. That’s not who he is or what he wants to do.

It was early afternoon. It was hot outside; cool inside. Filtered sunlight bathed the interior of Charley’s with a lyrical glow – a sweet-singing clarinet off to the side of a insistent brass section. The clarinet slides into a low glissando. Phil charms a waitress while ordering a nonalcoholic concoction he devised to set drinkers at ease when he began 12-stepping his way through a lifestyle notoriously laced with alcohol and other indulgences.

Since age 11, Phil has been a professional musician. His easy grin says it’s been a good life. His rumpled mug speaks eloquently of late nights, smokey rooms, recording studios and one-night stands making sonic love on a bandstand or street corner.

“We were round pegs in a square hole,” he said about his childhood on a cotton farm in Arkansas. His family was Roman Catholic in the Baptist Bible Belt, lovers of jazz in a land of country and western and Delta blues. “Dad brought home this clarinet. ‘Learn to play it,’ he said.”

Phil was 8. Three years later, he and two brothers formed a group that played talent shows, beauty pageants, service clubs, anywhere there was an audience and a few bucks for pay. He won music scholarships to Memphis State University in 1962 and in 1964 to the Berklee College of Music, “the world’s foremost institute for the study of jazz and modern American music.” At the Boston school he honed his chops with daily three-hour practice sessions and the tutelage of woodwind master Joe Viola.

Over waitress-recommended burgers, the story comes out in bits and pieces, often punctuated by a rim-shot joke. Phil’s the kind of jokester who bangs quips out of left field and waits for the listener to get it – five decades of doing what it takes to be a jazzman has given him plenty of material.

Doing what it takes means a day job. Paying the bills making music is a dream. Doing it on Maui is the proverbial brass ring. Phil’s a realist but his double-love – Maui and music – makes the effort paramount. Anything is possible. He and a ragtag group once earned $1,200 in 15 minutes busking in San Francisco after he spent the day working “as one of the few straight hair stylists in the city.”

He was also a sideman on Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., for producers Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd. Don’t recognize the names? Try Stevie Wonder, Michael Bloomfield, Wilson Pickett or Johnny Mathis, who said “just play the chart. People are expecting a certain sound.”

Then there was author Danielle Steele, who said “Phil Smith and his Gentlemen of Jazz have so much class and my guests are always entertained so magnificently by their music.”

Phil arrived on Maui in 2011 with the idea of finding a venue that would allow him to continue the eight-year run his Gentlemen of Jazz enjoyed at the Uva Trattoria in Napa, Calif. “A quartet, maybe, or a trio. I couldn’t even book a duo,” he said.

His ultimate dream is fronting a band in a fine-dining establishment featuring “ear-friendly music and touch-dancing, some place where we can build an audience. Maybe regular late-Sunday afternoon sessions. I know there is a market for that.”

For now, Phil has teamed up with bass player Danny M, whose discography runs into single-spaced pages. Danny plays upright, five-string fretless and five-string fretted. With Phil’s inventory of saxophones, clarinet, flute and mellow baritone singing, the duo has the ability and versatility – any style, any place – to keep an audience foot-tapping and grinning. Take it from me. I’ve heard Phil play and sing often enough – live and on recordings. There’s absolutely no risk to my credibility. Just ask any number of local professionals, including Willie K.

Need music? Call Phil at (808) 269-2611 or email And, yeh, he does island songs, all with the respect and class they deserve.

Phil compliments the waitress on her menu recommendation, slurps up the last of his drink and gets ready to head back into a brassy day, trailing the echo of a sassy clarinet. He’s just doing what he can until he can do what he loves.

* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is

Maui Nei

One of the more notable changes in life these days is the disappearance of accidents and/or taking blame for something. Today “an event that happens by chance or that is without apparent or deliberate cause” is always someone’s or something’s fault.

It’s amazing how human beings automatically devise “reasons” to explain wrong-headed actions, incompetence and plain old goofs, including “accidents.”

Somewhere along the line, the it-wasn’t-my-fault syndrome took root. It flowers incessantly everywhere on Maui. Shifting the blame is the name of the game, shifting it anywhere but where it belongs, which is generally at the feet of whoever is making the excuse.

The excuse as a personal defense was probably invented about the same time rocks began being used for tools and weapons. A couple of cave dudes were out to score dinner and one was supposed to chunk supper in the head but missed.

“Hey, it wasn’t my fault,” the inventor of the excuse and its collateral blame-game, grunted to companions. “He gave me the wrong rock. I’m used to a 6-pounder and he gave me a 9-pounder.”

The other hunters probably didn’t buy the “reason” for going hungry but shifting blame seemed a good way to avoid being banished to the back of the cave.

Excuse crafting falls naturally into three categories, each directly related to the age of the crafter.

Children are masters of both the transparent excuse and wildly imaginative pettifoggery. An example of the former is the blank-faced “I dunno” when questioned about how the cat happened to end up inside the refrigerator while he or she was alone in the kitchen. An example of the imaginary might be devised by a child confronted with a Magic Marker design on the living room wall. “The wind did it. I put my markers on the table by the window. A wind blew in. The curtains knocked the markers against the wall.”

Teenagers overlay the child’s approach with a veneer of sophistication. The reason for failing a school test? “I lost the textbook and the battery went dead on my smart phone. The class is right after PE and I’m always too tired to think straight. Besides, the teacher doesn’t like me.” Or:

“I was late getting home because we had a flat tire. Then the spare was flat and we didn’t have any quarters for the air machine. We finally used a tire from Loki’s car but he lost a contact lens. Have you ever tried to find a contact lens on the parking lot at Treats & Sweets?” This sort of cumulative excuse has been known to continue until the excuser was hoarse and the excusee is reminded irritation is a parent’s lot.

Once we reach the adult category of excuse-making the only thing limiting the excuse is imagination and a capacity for self-deception. The most convincing excuses are those the excusers believe. Local politicians are past-masters of self-deception, aided and abetted by voters most comfortable with the devils they know.

In this time of pressing demands, complex situations and inexplicable forces elsewhere, there has been an erosion of creative excuses. Well, not entirely. Just sit through a civil lawsuit case in court to get your fill of creative legalities. Among the general public, there has been a trend to substitute snap phrases.

Here are a few of the most common excuses making the rounds of Maui today. You supply the situation calling for the “reason.” There’s not enough water. It’s the economy. HC&S just doesn’t want to change. No one wants to work anymore. It’s the humidity. No one will use a bus or train. It’s the economy. All the council members are pro-development. We need the jobs. Big-box stores have cheap stuff. Local food is too expensive. She doesn’t understand me. He won’t talk to me. They just don’t seem to understand English. It’s the economy. I’m a woman. I’m a man. I’m haole, Filipino, Portuguese, local, Hawaiian, fresh-from-California, etc. Pick one. It’s the economy. We’ve always done it that way. Newcomers want stuff just like “back home.” What can you do when Washington is so screwed up? The banks are just sitting on the money. It’s the economy.

The cause gets lost in the effect. It’s likely a lot of time has gone by since you heard anyone, particularly someone in a position to make a difference, say “I made a mistake.” Play the blame game. File a lawsuit. Order an investigation. Point your finger and hope it doesn’t go off in your face.

Malama pono.

* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is

Maui Nei

The invitation was to a corporate party for cousins, cowboys and members of the community directly touched by Haleakala Ranch. It turned out to be a very family affair with the sixth and seventh generations of ranch owners racing around underfoot. It said much about aloha when a relatively recent transplant was asked to join a celebration of Maui’s past, present and future.

A telephone call supplied directions to what might be called a backyard party if your yard includes some 29,000 acres of Maui’s heart and soul.

“It’s being held at what they call the racetrack, a flat area above the old ranch dairy on Hanamu Road,” she said. “There’ll be a gate just after you come up out of the gulch.” Yup. I know where it is.

A ceiling of black-bottom clouds over that way prompted a brief consideration of taking the truck. The clouds seem too high for much in the way of rain. Besides, a motorcycle is always easy to park, though it might fall over in a pasture. Need something to stick under the sidestand to keep it from sinking. A cat-food can will do nicely.

There are just a few drops of rain on the Omaopio side of Five Trees. Hang a right at King Kekaulike High School and slip across the one-lane bridge just ahead of a rental van coming this way.

Abandoned pineapple field on the right. There’s a reservoir on the left and spread across a pasture are hundreds of sheep. No sign of the guard dogs. Some trucks and horse trailers clustered under the trees indicate some activity at the Manduke Baldwin cowboy polo field.

Hang another right on Hanamu. There’s the gate and a cluster of greeters at the foot of a rough road heading upward. One of the celebration organizers, Effie Cameron Ort, smiles a welcome shaded by a much-used cowboy hat.

Take a deep breath and motor on. Baby Dancer is a pavement pounder and the road is loose gravel. She wiggles from side to side. The gravel gives way to a pair of mud ruts that induce a more emphatic motohula. Forget it. Climb out of the rut and onto the untrammeled pasture grass. Ah, much more relaxing. There’s a metaphor in there, someplace.

The road wanders up maybe a thousand feet. Civilization drops away. Nothing but grass and trees and sky in sight until the big party tent comes into view. Baby Dancer is directed to a spot next to an area reserved for handicapped parking. Hmmm, another metaphor? The cat-food can is needed to keep the bike upright. The pasture grass is thick and spongy.

The entrance, marked by a rustic arch-gate and hale bales, is around that way. There’s just a hint of rain, a blessing for the Haleakala Ranch 125th anniversary party. After one more brief shower, the rain gives way to a clouded sunset to the west. The top of the mountain is clear.

The sweet, backyard sounds of Kevin and Ikaika Brown float out toward the beer wagon and the wine tent. Before the night is over, some 400 guests will be entertained and fed. Nearly 100 of those guests are stockholders in Haleakala Ranch. It held its annual meeting the day before with an affirmation to do whatever it takes to preserve the ranch, its open spaces and lifestyle.

There’s a very short program with two of the fourth-generation cousins speaking. Sam Lyons talked about the ranch’s commitment to preserving Maui. Maizie Cameron Sanford explained why so many descendants of Sam and Harry Baldwin, her uncle and grandfather, have different last names. She said a string of protective ranch directors had married into the family. They include her father, J. Walter Cameron, her late husband, Wallace Sanford, and now, her son-in-law, Charlie Crowley.

Over a sumptuous buffet dinner, Charlie talked proudly about his recent high-school graduate daughter, Maddie, spending days caring for younger cousins and a long day on a ranch horse. The ties between this Massachusetts-based family and the ranch are strong and strengthening.

The party was relaxed and even included an impromptu hula by three of the female Baldwin descendants. The cousins and cowboys could be spotted easily. They nearly all wore blue-and-white palaka shirts with a discrete Haleakala Ranch logo on the left sleeve. Palaka, a plaid denim, is historically tough, wrinkle-resistant and often marks the wearer as a person close to the land on horseback and afoot.

The ride down to the asphalt was easy. All those cars and trucks had packed down the gravel. E kala mai. I forgot to pick up the cat-food can.

* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is