Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hurricane Val and Koko Samoa

In March of 1992 my family moved to American Samoa to pursue my father's business - producing and selling Samoan Koko.  It was planned that we would live there for about 6 months, long enough to get the business up and going, and then move to Hawaii and run the business from there.

Hurricane Val had struck the islands just four months previously and had done some serious damage to the Cocoa plantations.  Needless to say, there was a limited supply.  My Samoan step-grandmother had connections in Western Samoa and was able to get us our first shipment of raw cocoa beans.
Hurricane Val devastated a Korean fishing fleet. 
These huge boats dotted the reefs in Samoa. 
The beaches were covered with dead coral reef remains.
Coconut trees were ripped from the ground and flung across roads.

The process for preparing Samoan Koko is pretty simple.  Roast the bean, shuck the outer shell of the bean and then grind the bean into a paste, package it and then sell it.  It's not the traditional Samoan way, but my father had a talent in producing a quality roasted bean that impressed the older Samoan's who always favored his Koko in many trials he had conducted over the years. 

My father constructed a roaster out of two fifty-five gallon drums.  He cut one in half and mounted it on a frame with the open side up.  This was the firebox that contained the wood.  The other drum was mounted on a rod through the length of it and set above the firebox.  A small door had been cut into the side of it attached with hinges to allow for pouring the beans into the drum.  The end of the barrel had another door cut in it to allow ease of dumping the beans out  by lifting the one end up. 

My turn at the roaster while chatting with a friend who was visiting from Utah.
Raw cocoa beans in a bucket next to me.
 There lies the trick of a good batch of Koko - the roasting.  If roasted too long, the bean would taste like charcoal.  If not roasted long enough, it would be bitter.  My father had a knack of knowing when the beans had roasted to perfection.

After the beans had been roasted, my father would pour them into large buckets and haul them into the house where we would all sit around and shuck beans while we watched TV.  We had to shuck the beans while they were still hot, because it was easier to get the hard brown crust-like covering off them.  We all developed callouses on our fingers from the shucking and brown dust got everywhere as the smell of fresh roasted cocoa beans filled our home.

Shucking cocoa beans.  We sometimes would
try to smear cocoa dust on each other for fun.

When all the beans had been shucked, my father would take them to the kitchen table where he had a large meat grinder set up.  Then, while he poured the beans into the hopper, one of us kids would hold a small plastic bag under the opening to catch the thick dark brown sludge.  Then the bagged Koko would be handed to another kid who would tie it, then passed onto another kid who would slap a label on it, and then to another kid who placed it in a box to cool. 

It would take a few days to roast a hundred pounds of Koko.

There was an ice cream maker on the island that my father got a deal with to make King Koko Samoa Ice cream - which was essentially vanilla ice cream with roasted Koko nibs inside. 

It was my job to stand in a grocery store in Pago Pago and hand out the Koko ice cream samples to the shoppers.  Most of the Samoans did not understand the concept of "free" samples and kept trying to give me money as I kept trying to get them to take a little paper cup of ice cream.  Finally, out of frustration, I just took their money so they would sample the ice cream.  I sold one carton of ice cream that day.  My mother, who was at a different store, sold two.  Things weren't going so well with our ice cream line.

It wasn't long after that experience that there were no more beans available.  At all.  The Koko business venture came to an end, and the struggle to return to Hawaii began.

1 comment:

  1. Honestly your story sounds great but, its not that the samoan people were not understanding the concept of "free" but rather that they were wanting you to be proud of your work and the concept of being proud of something you worked hard for. Oh, trust me if the samoan people in Pago, Pago loved your Koko. Your dad and you kids wouldnt have been able to keep up with the order's. Koko was produced thousands of years ago in Samoa your time there perfecting the process was just a trickle in the timeline.