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Pacific Island style buffetWhen I was in high school my family moved to New Zealand so we could live close to my ageing grandmother. An added bonus was that just about all my mother’s 8 siblings (and their children, and their children’s children) lived in the same neighbourhood, and for as long as my grandmother was still with us, weekly Sunday feasts at her house was a raucous, often entertaining, usually delicious, only sometimes distressing extended family tradition.

As newbies to the clan (and culture) at the time, my own siblings and I had a lot to learn about the pecking order in an extended Samoan family and how it applies to meal times.

The first thing we learned is that unless you’re from generation 1 (with grandma) or generation 2 (with mamma and her siblings), OR you’re too young to go to school, then you probably shouldn’t set your heart on tasting the juiciest looking morsels at the table because by the time it’s your turn to eat, they will most likely be gone.

Until all the elders (and very young children) have had their fill, your place, oh generation 3+, is in the kitchen if you’re a girl or outside doing manly-er food-related chores like scraping taro for the saka or grating coconut meat for the fa’alifu. With a family as big as ours though, and only so much space in the kitchen, as long as the key positions in the service line are filled, leftover cousins can be forgiven for lounging around in the garage or outside on the lawn or in their cars or out on the curb, stomachs grumbling, till they get the ‘all clear at the table’ signals.

Suckers Gracious souls who volunteer to serve their elders during the meal, after a few months in my family anyway, could probably qualify for a National Certificate in Service and Hospitality. Responsibilities include:

  • Setting the table, piling its centre with the best of the pot luck offerings
  • Refilling and clearing any of the serving dishes as needed
  • Rinsing used dishes as they come off the table, stacking them for the big wash
  • Watching/listening for any instructive nods, grunts or chin-pointing from the table as the elders tuck in
  • Preparing the apa fafano, a bowl of very warm, soapy water for hand washing, and a tea towel for drying (duh)
  • Once an elder has finished eating, clear their dishes, give them the apa fafano & tea towel, then offer a hot beverage
  • When an elder leaves the table, clear and reset the vacated spot for the next person in the hierarchy of who eats first

It is only after all the elders have eaten is it acceptable for the rest of the generation 3+’ers to dish themselves a plate from the the pots in the kitchen if they wish… FINALLY they can indulge in what’s left of the day’s delicacies. In my family, 90% of the time, the food at this stage of the feast was STILL great! (The other 10% of the time is what kept McDonalds, KFC & Burger King in our town extra busy those Sundays).

And then it’s the big clean.

Hopefully the kitchen people were industrious while they waited to eat, because then what’s left to do should just be the cousins’ used dishes (paper plates anybody?) and the pots & pans. Oh, a word about doing the dishes:

Especially if the home you’re meeting in is yours, NEVER bang pots and pans around or clank the utensils or dishes while you wash or dry. In the Samoan culture, this is a signal that a guest in the home is unwanted… at the very least this will cause hurt feelings amongst your guests and could even lead to a not-nice retaliation from them.

My family’s get-togethers were a great place for us newbies and young’uns to learn things like this. Even today I gotta smile at the memory of my aunts calling out to me, “e i ai se mea e ke le malie i ai?” (“is there something you’re not happy about?”) whenever I accidentally dropped a pot.

It’s been a lot of years since my grandmother passed. My memories of Sunday feasts at her place are populated by so many other loved ones who are no longer with us. Those of us left (and it’s still a big number with many new additions) don’t get to hang out as an extended family as often as we used.

Walking through the things I know now, though, about my Samoan culture is a warm reminder of how essential my family has been in shaping the person I am today.

Ia manuia.

p.s.

Hmmm… have a missed something in my description of Samoan meal-time etiquette? If I have, please leave a comment below, or let me know if you have any questions.