Isle Slow Food founder Nan Piianaia's life to be celebrated
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser food editor
Nan Piianaia, food historian, writer, founder of the local Slow Food movement and proponent of fresh food, farmer’s markets and cooking from scratch, died Jan. 29 after a long illness.
She was 67.
Piianaia, of Waimea, is remembered as knowledgeable — particularly about Japan’s food and its culinary history and culture — and generous with her contacts and expertise, ever bringing people together to learn from each other and carry out projects to further the future of farming, sustainability and artisanal foods.
Writer and farmer’s market proponent Joan Namkoong recalled a group tour of Japan organized by Piianaia a few years ago. “I learned so much from her,” Namkoong said. “Nan was a foodie but not the sort that had to be at the newest restaurant or trying the latest food trend. She was a food intellectual, a historian, (who) embraced the cultural aspects of food as well as good food itself.”
Namkoong and others agreed that Hawaiçi’s Slow Food groups owe their existence to Piianaia’s guidance. (Slow Food is an international organization, founded in Italy in 1986, that advocates for sustainable agriculture and a rediscovery of the pleasures of the table, according to the Slow Food Oahu web site.) It was Piianaia who convened the first meeting, at Fujioka’s Wine Bar in 2002.
“She was the founding member. . . and such an enthusiastic supporter of local food,” said Laurie Carlson, publisher of Honolulu Weekly, who became an officer of Slow Food. The organization has since become five groups — on the Big Island, Oçahu, Kauaçi, Maui and a student chapter at Kapiçiolani Community College. Piiania headed the 200-member Hawaiçi island group until two years ago.
Piianaia took groups of local farmers and food producers to Slow Food’s semi-annual international meeting in Italy, introducing the international community to Island taro and poi and Big Island honey. And she helped organize farm and ranch tours here.
Piianaia not only enjoyed cooking and entertaining, she loved to teach and thought it was important that young people be introduced to the kitchen early. “She taught many children in Waimea to cook,” said Namkoong.
Piianaia was devoted to exploring the history of Island foods. She wrote an extensive oral history of food and food businesses along the Kona coast.
Three years ago, she worked with Monte Richards of Kahua Ranch, shaping a series of interviews into a history of his life. “I’ll forever remember what she did for me. I have a lot of grateful respect for her. She made it so easy to work with her,” said Richards, who said the success of the project is a tribute to Piianaia’s skill as an interviewer, editor and writer.
Piianaia was born Nancy Foskett Nov. 20, 1943 in Boston, Mass., and grew up in Lexington, Mass. She took a degree at Skidmore College in 1965 and came to Hawaiçi in 1968 to pursue Asian Studies at the East-West Center; she also studied at Doshisha Women's College, Kyoto, Japan, and the California Culinary Academy.
She interned at famed Chez Panisse and returned to Hawaiçi to cater from her home, perfect recipes with repeated testing and teach cooking.
Recalled her husband, Norman: “Shortly before her passing we talked about her religious and spiritual beliefs. While she talked about growing up a Unitarian in Lexington, a good Yankee belief, she felt she was really more Buddhist in her evolved beliefs and view of life. . . . We quickly determined that she was an Escoffier Buddhist. . . . Buddhism with lots of good food and wine, but especially lots of butter.
Besides her husband, Piianaia is survived by sons Maika'i (Liela) and Gordon (Devan), 4 grandchildren: Emma (8), Aidan (7), Silas (5), Ellie Grace (2), nieces and nephews.
A memorial celebration will be held Feb. 28 at Kahua Ranch on Highway 250 between Waimea and Hawi on the Big island; follow signs to Paniolo Lanai. Viewing is from 10 a.m., service at 11 a.m., a “heavy pupu” reception follows from noon to 2 p.m.