Students dressed in Hawaiian shirts
Holden Dining Hall team members
Holden Dining Hall

As snow covered the ground across campus at Michigan State University (MSU), students, faculty, staff and other campus diners escaped to a tropical paradise. The Culinary Services team embraced the spirit, flavor and atmosphere of a traditional luau at the Hawaiian Islands Dinner on Thursday, April 6 at Holden Dining Hall.

“I traveled to Hawaii in 2010 and have wanted to go back ever since,” shared Kayla Borkowski, assistant dining services manager. “While visiting, I went to a luau and I remember the atmosphere and the food being absolutely amazing. I wanted to share that experience with the students at MSU.”

Throughout the venue, bright decorations, including surfboards, hand-crafted palm trees and grass skirt linings, lifted attendees’ spirits after they endured what seemed to be the last day of a cold Michigan winter. Vibrant leis worn by guests and team members helped incorporate an important symbol in Hawaiian culture. These garlands are presented upon arriving or leaving as a symbol of affection.

Borkowski and South Neighborhood Executive Chef Bryan Latz worked closely with the Culinary Services corporate kitchen on research, testing and menu development for the dinner. “We wanted to make it as authentic as possible to truly respect and honor the islands,” expressed Ryan Barlow, operations coordinator and sous chef for the kitchen.

Event attendees enjoyed Kālua Pig, which is the main dish of a luau, as well as Banana Poi, Seaweed Dip, Hawaiian Fried Rice, and Grilled Fresh Wahoo with Honey Soy Glaze and Pineapple Salsa. “Kālua Pig was the most pleasantly surprising dish,” Barlow recalls. “We ordered a special salt that includes clay from the Hawaiian Islands, giving it a dark red color, a different texture and an aroma that you don’t get with traditional salt. The combination was simple, but the flavor exceeded our expectations.” The meat was wrapped in banana leaves and smoked to imitate the traditional pit style of cooking Kālua Pork.

The Holden dining team collaborated throughout the process, sharing decoration concepts and menu ideas. The Nuoc Clam Sauce for the SPAM and Pineapple Egg Roll was created by Fred Haigh, a culinary platform attendant. “We incorporated SPAM after discovering through research how it became ingrained in Hawaiian culture,” Barlow explained. After World War II, there was a large military presence in Hawaii. The government had many soldiers to feed every day, however, it was extremely difficult to get fresh meat out to the islands. The soldiers ended up being fed a lot of SPAM because it’s inexpensive and has a long shelf life. At the time, Hawaii had a large population of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino migrant workers, all of whom had various methods of incorporating SPAM meat into their own cultural dishes. The resulting recipes were so good that SPAM became prevalent throughout the state.

Other team members contributed to the menu, using food items in a creative manner. A Watermelon Shark and Pineapple Palm Tree were made by dining service worker Eric Feliciano and Shark Jello Shots were crafted by dining service worker Greg Petrone.

Colorful desserts, including Banana Guava Pie and Passion Fruit Bundt Cake, represented the copious use of fruits generally found in Hawaiian sweets. The MSU Bakers team created a wide variety of specialty items for the event, including hand-decorated Hibiscus Flower and Palm Tree sugar cookies, which are a favorite in any style across campus.

Other key players in organizing the event included Dan Knapp, dining services manager at Holden, and Cheryl Berry, marketing and communications manager. “I’m so appreciative of the overwhelming support that I received from other departments and my neighborhood team,” Borkowski said. “The test kitchen helped craft a unique menu, the bakery made special desserts that tied in with the theme and Food Stores brought in items we don’t normally carry. Managers were a huge help and the marketing materials really popped! It was a good feeling to know that other people wanted the event to be a success as well.”

Navigating the dining hall, guests learned about the islands and their nicknames on themed venue signs, including Oahu – “The Gathering Place” and Ni’ihau – “The Forbidden Isle.” In a central area near the venues, sand pails filled with candy represented various beach items, allowing people to “build their own beach bag” of treats. For example, rafts were portrayed by vanilla wafers and rock candy served as lava rocks.

To add a fun, engaging piece to the evening, diners had the opportunity to win one of four Hawaiian sweatshirts by guessing the number of seashells in a jar.

Overall, the dinner provided Spartans with a chance to forget about the snowy day and enter a room that emanated the warmth and beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. One guest, Kristen Lewicki, summed it up in a survey comment: “The event was great and the variety of decorations were so cute. It was a nice pick-me-up for a snowy April day.”