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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 5, 2010

Food historian Nan Piianaia, 67


By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Nan Piianaia

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Nan Piianaia, food historian, writer, founder of the local Slow Food movement and a proponent of fresh food, farmers markets and cooking from scratch, died Jan. 29 after a long illness. She was 67.

She 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 farmers market proponent Joan Namkoong recalled a culinary tour of Japan organized by Piianaia a few years ago. "I learned so much from her," she 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 Hawai'i's Slow Food groups owe their existence to Piianaia's guidance. Slow Food is an international organization, founded in Italy in 1986, that advocates sustainable agriculture and the enjoyment of handcrafted foods.

Piianaia convened the first Slow Food meeting in Honolulu at Fujioka's Wine Bar in 2002. "She was the founding member ... 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, O'ahu, Kaua'i, Maui and a student chapter at Kapi'olani Community College. Piianaia headed the 200-member Hawai'i island group until two years ago.

She 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. She also helped organize farm and ranch tours.

Piianaia 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 on the Big Island, shaping a series of interviews with him into a history of his life.

"I have a lot of grateful respect for her. She made it so easy to work with her," Richards said.

Born Nancy Foskett on Nov. 20, 1943, in Boston and raised in Lexington, Mass., she came to Hawai'i in 1968 to pursue Asian studies at the East-West Center. She also studied at Doshisha Women's College in Kyoto and the California Culinary Academy.

She interned at famed Chez Panisse and returned to Hawai'i to cater from her home and teach cooking.

Norman Piianaia, her husband of 38 years, recalled, "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."

Piianaia also is survived by sons Maika'i (Liela) and Gordon (Devan), four grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

A memorial celebration will be held Feb. 28 at Kahua Ranch; take Highway 250 (mauka road) from Waimea toward Hāwī, take the first turn past the Kohala Ranch subdivision on the mauka side, and look for signs to Paniolo Lanai.

Viewing is from 10 a.m., with the service at 11 a.m., and a "heavy pūpū" reception from noon to 2 p.m. Gifts may be made in Piianaia's name to the charity of the donor's choice.