SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
Celebration, Umu Style
alongside in Pago Pago, American Samoa
Ship’s Heading & Speed
7/8 to 8/8 of the sky is covered by low-lying cumulus clouds, intermittent rain, windy.
For our last full day ashore at Pago Pago, American Samoa, S-275 went to a traditional Samoan umu at Reg and Su'a Wilson's beautiful home. They are good friends of SEA Semester and are educators here on the island where they grew up and currently live on Reg's family land. An umu is a feast that Samoans prepare typically every Sunday, and it's kind of like our Sunday dinner or Thanksgiving, depending on how big your Sunday dinners are. Umu means a lot of different things in American Samoa, including the name of the feast, the name of the way food is cooked, family name, and the type of food that is prepared.
To prepare an umu, our class was separated so that the men helped Su'a Wilson and his sons & friends to husk coconuts, pick taro, and do all the cooking, while the women helped Reg in the kitchen with weaving plates, baskets, and preparing salads. However, for this learning experience, everyone got to try everything! I ate raw coconut that Josh husked (job well done!), and we passed the coconuts around so everyone could have a drink of the coconut water.
My job was to help prepare the papa, or the coconut bread. Fresh coconut milk was prepared by the men, who husked and shredded the coconut in order to strain it and squeeze out all the delicious milk. The coconut milk was mixed in with flour, sugar, and a little cinnamon.
I folded the dough over slightly to mix in the milk without making the dough too tough, or the bread comes out like rocks. I separated the dough into medium sized (according to my small hands) rectangle blobs and placed them on banana leaf squares. A bunch of us wrapped up the papa and put them on a platter, which was brought to the men so they could put the papa on the umu (fire). Think of the umu as a hole in the ground filled with hot rocks, fire, food on top of the rocks, and the food covered in big leaves. All the flavors of the cinnamon, coconut, leaves, two whole turkeys, a pig, taro, fish, turmeric, and the smoke blending into an amazing flavoring that makes all the food have an amazing smokey taste, kind of like barbeque mixed with a campfire.
While all the cooking was going on and a few of us were waiting to prepare the tables, we practiced weaving plates and baskets out of palm fronds. The pattern is super simple and makes for a sturdy biodegradable way to carry food. The best part: no trash! All the food that is left over is scraped off the plates and can be composted, and the plates get thrown into the jungle behind the house. Pretty cool and sustainable, huh? Maybe we should try weaving some plates back home. We also learned about how tapa cloth ("siapo" in Samoan) is made, which is a Samoan art form that takes tree bark and forms it into mats that are then painted with dyes made from other plants. We got to see which plants the black, brown, red, and yellow dyes come from, and the tools that are used to make tapa. Tapa can be worn like a skirt, can be displayed as art, and can be used as bed sheets or table cloths.
We learned about the artform of tatau (tattoo) from Su'a Wilson, who is the only Samoan tatau master that still makes his own traditional tools out of boar husks and turtle shells. His work is even featured in the Smithsonian, along with Reg's artwork.
Before departing, we learned a little about how Su'a Wilson built his own canoe out of the breadfruit trees behind his house, and how Samoan navigators sail with the unique winds in the island region. Fa'afatai Lava to Reg, Su'a Wilson, their family and friends, and the drivers of the bus for making this day such a unique and wonderful experience. Shout out to Jeff for all the planning!