At exactly 3:17 a.m. on the Tahitian island of Moorea, a massive Sunday meal finds life in a hole in the ground.
I’ve finagled an invitation to a meal called a ma’a Tahiti on Moorea. “Come tonight when I light the fire,” says a man named Taaroa, one of the volunteers from the village of Atitia. This will be a round-the-clock undertaking, and the resulting spread will raise funds to help the Atitia Cultural Center in its collaboration with the University of California at Berkeley. When I return at midnight, Taaroa says I’m early and gives me a mat so I can sleep on the ground. At 3:17 a.m. I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Taaroa. He ignites husks and fronds under a layer of rocks, which will turn hot in the hole. People trickle in at 5:35 a.m. They greet me like a friend, though we’ve never met.Zach Stovall
The pavilion becomes a buzz of activity by 6:30 a.m. It will take a lot of hands to make this meal. The rocks glow like coals in the pit. Banana trunks are sliced and placed on, and around, the hot rocks (the water content of the trunks will generate steam, which cooks the food). I get a lesson in how to wring every bit of nourishment from coconut meat: It’s squeezed for milk and also mixed with flour before being wrapped in leaves (this will become bread). Fish, pork, chicken, breadfruit, potatoes — everything edible is placed in a big basket, which then goes into the hole.Zach Stovall
Wet burlap sacks are laid over the food and then covered with sand. Dinner is officially buried. Hinano (wearing flowers) breaks into a song with 30 volunteers while the ground smolders. When the basket is exhumed two hours later, we sing another chorus. Plates will be sold starting at 10:30 a.m. to raise money for a local educational program. The huge spread includes poisson cru, chicken fafa and po’e. It’s more earthy than spicy, more filling than flavory. And it’s more satisfying than any meal I’ve ever experienced.Zach Stovall