This Old Car

Chef Peter Merriman came over to visit today, along with Chef Neil Murphy and Assistant Chef Dan Salvador, all of Merriman’s in Waimea.

Peter was the first person to value fresh, locally grown produce over imported produce. It was common knowledge then that he was paying a premium for products grown locally. That was at a time when local farmers were otherwise receiving the same as what it cost to buy imported produce, or less.

He’s a special friend. Fifteen years ago I was in a reflective mood on Christmas day and called him at home in Puako. I thanked him on behalf of local farmers everywhere.

He was one of the founders of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement. And now he is one of the founding member chefs of the new Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture Seal of Quality program.

I surprised our guests today by taking them on a tour of the farm on our old sampan bus. We drove over to see the hydroponic lettuce and watercress operation, where they saw how we grow our lettuces without soil. I explained that we are food safety-certified, and they were pleasantly surprised by the good taste and tenderness of the watercress.

I asked if we could ship them samples to see how the watercress holds up. So we’ll be delivering to Merriman’s first thing next week.

(l-r) Assistant Chef Dan Salvador, Chef Neil Murphy and Chef Peter Merriman

We bought this old sampan bus at auction a few years ago. There were seven or eight of them for sale that day, but June’s dad, who’s an old car hobbyist, told me that this one, which had previously been owned by the Lyman Museum, was the most authentic.

In the 1930s through ‘50s, sampans (or “jitneys”) were a common and inexpensive form of transportation in Hilo. They were open-sided, built from small bus bodies that were mounted onto the chassis of passenger cars.

I wanted a sampan really badly and at the auction I got caught up in the bidding process. I bid quickly and decisively.

When the bidding reached $8,000, I lost track of who had made the last bid and I raised it. The auctioneer said, “He must really want it; he just bid against himself.”

Everything got quiet, no one else bid and I got it for $8,000. As it turned out, that was the lowest bid for any of the sampans that day.

The other day I brought the bus up to the farm. I drove over to the tomato-packing house and waved for Ida, Flo and Susie come over.

I told them, “It’s okay, jump in, we go” and I took them for a ride. Flo reminisced about catching the sampan to go to school back in the day. I told them, “That will be a nickel.” We were all smiling.