I did a terrible thing last week. I introduced an East Coast visitor to Ululani's Hawaiian Shave Ice. I feel like the playground pushers they warned us about in the 1970s - boogeymen lurking in the shadows with trial-size psychedelics. Pssst! Hey kid, try this out, you're gonna love it. Yeah, that's it. You want more, don't you? My poor friend boarded the red-eye home with visions of syrup-drenched mounds of ice crystals dancing in his head. And although shave ice technology has advanced tremendously, they still haven't figured out how to put it in a care package.
The history of shave ice goes back a thousand years, to the Heian period in Japan. Ice was carried down from the mountains in winter and stored in a cave for only royalty to enjoy. In the 1880s, Japanese immigrants introduced the icy treat to Hawaii's plantation camps, using hand-cranked graters, wood planers, even samurai swords to shave the blocks of ice.
Those early shave ice purveyors couldn't have imagined the snowy texture and gourmet flavors served up today by Ululani's or Tom's Shave Ice in Waiehu. Remember when rainbow meant red strawberry, blue vanilla, yellow lemon, period? And the texture of 1960s shave ice was more like coarse gravel than finely ground ice. Still, it was our favorite treat, more refreshing than ice cream, longer lasting than Popsicles. Actually, I liked my mom's ice cake, made with Mission Grapeade base, best of all, but ice cake was homemade and therefore not as cool as going out for shave ice.
Every island claimed to have the best shave ice. Oahu touted Matsumoto's; Big Islanders bragged about Itsu's in Hilo, where they still call it ice shave. Don't ask me why; I spent hours trying to find the answer online. All I came up with was a slightly hostile post which read, "That's right, it's ICE SHAVE, not SHAVE ICE. Snooty Honolulu people say we Hiloans have it backwards - I disagree. After all, is it ICE CREAM or CREAM ICE? ICE CUBE or CUBE ICE?" Humph. What about dry ice, Italian ice, Vanilla Ice? Never mind, there is no logical explanation for Vanilla Ice. In any case, shave ice or ice shave, we Mauians knew the truth: Azeka's had the best. So what if they didn't offer azuki beans or a condensed milk snowcap? They had monkeys! Real live monkeys in a huge cage, watching us slurp up Malolo syrup as if we were the animals on display. Azeka's shave ice and monkeys were the only reasons for going to sleepy little Kihei in those days. Besides Suda Store chow fun. And the beach.
Of course, a serious discussion of shave ice memories must include a nod to my old friend Tom Stevens, whose "Shave Ice" column used to occupy this Wednesday space. Aptly named, Tom's discourse was a weekly treat, as tasty and uniquely local as Ululani's wet lemon peel with mochi balls. Like its namesake, the column was appreciated equally by kamaaina and newcomers; comfort food to those of us who grew up in Hawaii, a newfound treasure to those who didn't.
Those were a few of the thoughts that filled my head the other day, after bidding my Mainland friend farewell. We didn't have enough time to stop on the way to the airport, so he asked me to go for our last shave ice after dropping him off. "Make it a combo, half lilikoi and whatever you want for the other half. Then tell me all about it, in great detail, the next time we talk." This is what happens when one word lover introduces another to the wonders of Maui.
Simple pleasures like shave ice and talking story inspire jubilant praise poems. Sitting on a moonlit beach, standing above the clouds on the upper slopes of Haleakala, seeing the beauty of our island reflected in the eyes of a smitten newcomer, I couldn't help but fall in love with Maui all over again. And I was moved by his example to love and live in the moment, to pay attention to all of my senses, all of the time, and to fully express my appreciation.
So now I feel guilty. In the last few days, I've hatched some new performance ideas and written page after page of joyful expression. My friend gave me renewed appreciation, inspiration and purpose. And I gave him a shave ice monkey on his back, an itch which can only be scratched 5,000 miles away. That's downright cruel.
I got guava, by the way. I let the first frosty bite melt in my mouth and savored the earthiness of the little gritty bits of guava pulp swirled in the syrupy sweet tang of lilikoi. It was perfect. Best shave ice I've ever had.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.