We wore little grass skirts, some of us, and the rest wore a swath of Hawaiian fabric wrapped around the waist and tied at the hip. We slid our bare feet across the floor of the Jr. Sunday School Room, our pelvises swaying to the beat, our hands floating through the air, guiding our arms over imaginary waves. Young teenage girls, exploring the culture of the Islands in a weeknight Luau activity, we performed the dance we had learned for our adult leaders and the Young Men in our activity group. Of course we wore Levi’s under those grass skirts. I glanced to my left, following the lead of Andi Johnson as she called up the genetic instincts of her ancestral Hawaiian roots, making sure I was remembering the moves correctly. “I wanna go back to my little grass shack in Kee-al-a-ka-u-a Hawaii….” Even still, all these decades later, I can lay one hand atop the other, my thumbs fluttering on the sides like the fins of a fish, while singing “Where the Uma-uma-nuka-nuka-apawa-a all go swimming by.” I have no idea if that lyric is correct, by the way.
There was a long serving table set up along the wall, covered with a floral tablecloth. Crepe paper flowers were strung in a garland across the door, and everyone wore a plastic colored lei around the neck. Geri Johnson, the Hawaiian mother of Andi and her twin brothers Steve and Scott, had covered that table with tasty Hawaiian fare: fresh pineapple, sticky white rice, a variety of sweets and treats, and an electric skillet filled with Sweet and Sour Pork. It was the first time I had experienced the dish, and the smell was less than pleasant for me. I was the daughter of an Idaho meat and potatoes gal. Vinegar was used for cleaning and laundry. The only time I remember Mom using cider vinegar was to curdle milk for baking, for dying Easter eggs, and the tablespoonful she added to her gingerbread men. I can’t even recall if I dared try the Sweet and Sour at our church Mutual youth activity. (I mostly remember wishing I could be as beautiful as Andi Johnson, and s graceful as her mother.)
The next time I encountered Sweet and Sour Pork was in my mother-in-law’s kitchen. My adultness encouraged me to try it, and whadda-you-know…I liked it! I really liked it. Like, two servings worth of liked it! Mom Connors typed up the recipe for me on a 3x5 index card, and I watched her make it there in her kitchen the next time she cooked it up. Now it’s a regular on our family menu. The wooden cupboards in my kitchen are infused with the aroma of vinegar, married to sugar and soy sauce. It joins other scents from other meals, so that the culinary DNA of my kitchen is a collection of molecules strewn together by cultural variety, from Italian to Mexican to French to good old Idaho meat and potatoes…and of course, the flavor of Geri Johnson's Hawaiian island home.
CHICKEN NUGGETS – the real deal.
My little Treasures are less excited about the pungent Sweet and Sour sauce in this recipe, as well as the cooked peppers. So for them I make extra nuggets. I am used to only using about 2/3 of the meat nuggets I’ve cooked for this recipe, because I am the mother of John and Annie. Their sneaky little fingers pinched their way into the bowl that held the cooked meat, sometimes till their tummies were full before dinner was even served. My Littles get plates with nuggets on them, which they may or may not dip in ketchup. (Seriously!?)
Lately I’ve taken to preferring chicken in this recipe. Chicken tenders work really well,. They’re tender and cook evenly and quickly. I also prefer to use red and yellow peppers instead of green peppers. They are sweeter and digest easier.
Sweet and Sour Pork or Chicken
1-2 lbs. pork or chicken, cut into 1” cubes
1 – 2 green, red or yellow peppers
1 can pineapple chunks (sweetened is preferred. Drain and reserve the broth for sauce))
Batter: 2 eggs
4 T. flour or cornstarch
1 t. salt
½ t. pepper
Sauce: 3 T. soy sauce
½ c. sugar
1/3 c. vinegar
1 c. chicken broth (may use water and 2 T bouillon)
Juice from canned pineapple
¼ c. cornstarch (4T)
(adjust amount of sugar and vinegar to taste. I also add a couple T corn syrup)
Heat ½ c. vegetable oil in heavy saucepan. Dip meat in batter and fry in oil until golden, about 5 minutes. Remove meat to a plate or bowl as you continue to cook until it is all done. Drain off any excess oil.
Boil cleaned and cubed green peppers in water for 3 minutes. Drain and place peppers in separate bowl. Add all sauce ingredients to pan, including juice drained from pineapple, stirring cornstarch into cold mixture. Heat over med or high heat until thick.
Thicken more with cornstarch and cold water if needed.
Return meat to large saucepan, add pineapple and peppers. Pour thickened sauce over all and stir while you reheat. Serve over hot rice.