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By Jen Urban, FoodCorps service member in O’ahu, HI

I stand in the middle of the hot kitchen. A steamer basket the size of a second-grader sits on the stove. Abandoned kitchen appliances litter the counter, all being slowly glued into place. My forearms, the front of my apron, the whole world it seems, are covered in sticky purple starch. I’m five hours into a battle royal that I never meant to have, and I’m out of ideas.

It all started a week earlier. “Fourth graders, who has tried kalo or poi before?” Hands fly up. A little boy in the back wiggles in his seat, “Miss Jen, I eat poi with my auntie!” A few kids sit quietly, but most have one or both hands in the air. The students at Mākaha Elementary, here on the west side of O‘ahu, are an exuberant bunch. We’re in the middle of garden class, standing among the rustling palm leaves, with the bright equatorial sun shining high above head and the kalo plants reaching skyward or bowing to the mountain, depending the on speed of the wind.

{{ image(3196, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”: “200”, “height”: “300”}) }}I’m a FoodCorps service member at Hoa ‘Āina O Mākaha, the educational farm next to Mākaha Elementary. This year, I’m striving to get all 650 students at the school to touch, cook, and taste fresh, whole foods. We focus especially on kalo, breadfruit, and sweet potatoes: the nutrient-dense staple crops that have sustained generations of people on the Hawaiian Islands.

This fateful day in the kitchen, my plan to reintroduce kalo in a novel way was going deeply awry. I had big plans to experiment with recipes by replacing white potato and bleached flour with local, whole foods. Gnocchi—a small Italian dumpling—had been my golden idea. It was something new for the kalo-savvy students, and a gateway snack for kids who had avoided it thus far.

Kalo, known elsewhere as taro, is a root vegetable consisting of large heart-shaped leaves and a starchy corm. After three hours of steaming it to remove the calcium oxalate crystals that render raw kalo inedible, I discovered exactly why cooked kalo is usually either sliced or pounded with a stone to make pa‘i‘ai or poi. It was slipping around the food mill and stood up against a mallet. Lacking both the skill and tools to properly ku’i (pound), I had decided that grating it with the food processor would be a suitable stopgap solution. It was not. Which brings me back to the massive bowl full of grated kalo, far too sticky to make dumplings, practically mocking me from the counter as I stared.

At this very moment, my supervisor, who had been watching this puzzling battle from the corner of her eye, offered up some sage advice. “Why don’t you try to make something else besides gnocchi?” “What do you mean make something else?! This has been the plan all along. It can’t just change now!” And yet it did. It had to. The old plan wasn’t working, and the evidence could be seen on most every surface of the kitchen and on myself.

The moment of grieving for old ideas came and went with a deep sigh, and then it was time for invention, for flexibility, for finally listening to what my star ingredient was telling me.

A moment later, I was grabbing fistfuls of the glutinous, grated root vegetable and nervously pressing it into a shallow pan. I sliced and tossed a few small squares into a skillet with olive oil and sea salt. They sizzled happily, filling the disheveled kitchen with a warm, toasty aroma. Together, my supervisor and I tasted my creation: a crispy, soft, and salty experience. The lovechild of hash browns and tater tots, but nutritious and culturally relevant. The kalo tot was born.

This is a story of the wisdom bestowed upon me by a starchy tuber. Specifically, the most important starchy tuber in Hawaiian history. In my gnocchi-crazed state, I had long since passed commendable determination and had hit stubbornness. When I finally stepped back and allowed the kalo’s inherently sticky qualities to guide me, something remarkable emerged.

Kalo taught me to stop pretending I know what I’m doing when I don’t, to let go of ideas that aren’t working, and to see something new. Kalo taught me to be a student of my surroundings.

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The students at Mākaha Elementary would taste the kalo tots in their garden classes over the next couple weeks to showcase the wonderful flavors that come straight from the land. To my immense relief, they were a hit. I should have known this old, wise vegetable would have something to teach me. We are all young and new to the world compared to kalo.