No One Told Me Mac Salad Could Be This Good

The water was green-blue off He’eia Kea Pier, that shade of blue with light sinking through it. I grew up on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, but this was somewhere I’d never been, although it was only a 40-minute drive from my mother’s house. There’s a joke that you can spend your life here and never go to another island, or even to the other side of your own.

I placed my order at the general store, a wooden shack with a pitched shingle roof and a whiteboard menu. The chef Mark Noguchi, Gooch to friends, ran the kitchen. We would bond some years later in our disdain over the accent that mainland newspapers put over the “e” in “poke.” But at the time — this was back in 2011 — I knew him only by reputation: After cooking at one of Hawaii’s most refined and expensive restaurants, he’d gone back to the food of the people and was making farm-to-table plate lunches.

The marquee ingredient, of course, is mayonnaise — an American staple, beloved and scorned in equal measure.

Historians trace the origins of the plate lunch to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when laborers on Hawaii’s pineapple and sugar-cane plantations — first Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese and later Korean and Filipino immigrants — packed rice and meat in kau kau tins for their days in the fields. (wow emerged as pidgin for “eat” and is believed to be an adaptation from the Chinese, possibly the Cantonese wowor “to fry,” akin to the etymology of the American “chow.”)

The plate lunch of today is still built as pure fuel. It comes with your choice of protein, maybe hamburger steak drinking up gravy, teri (short for teriyaki) beef or guava chicken with its faint memory of Hawaiian Sun juice in a can. Equal weight goes to the carbs: two scoop rice — no “of,” if you please, and drop the “s” at the end of “scoops” while you’re at it — and one scoop mac salad, perfectly domed, like a helping of ice cream. (The traditional utensil for serving is, in fact, the ice-cream scoop.)

I couldn’t tell you which plate I ordered. All I remember is eating that mac salad, very slowly and carefully, in bafflement and wonder. I’d tasted many a mac salad as a kid, and more often than not — sacrilege to my fellow kama’aina (literally “child of the land” but colloquial for “a local”) — I’d found it a cloying glop .

But here was richness without weight, left by tang and salt. It had a little punch-up of Tabasco, and only trace sweetness, like a sidelong glance, from grateful carrots and the fleetest grace note of sugar. I stared out at the boats and that green-blue, feeling strangely betrayed. No one told me it could be this good.

Hawaii’s mac salad is not the summer standard of cookouts on the mainland (what we call the rest of the United States). The pasta is cooked past al dente, until swoony and soft all the way through. Some cooks add potatoes, so you get mac salad and potato salad rolled into one; Gooch mixes potatoes and kalo (taro), a nuttier root vegetable that’s almost meaty, with dense, custardy flesh.

The marquee ingredient, of course, is mayonnaise — an American staple, beloved and scorned in equal measure. Too much fat, the doctors scold. Too lowbrow, the epicures sniff (unless you make it yourself). “Just so you know, you’ll be using a lot of mayo,” Gooch warns. “Obscene, guaranteed-going-to-make-you-raise-your-eyebrow kine of lot.” We’re talking three cups’ worth, a third of a cup per serving.

But remember that mayonnaise, for all its cozying up to squishable white bread, is part of the French pantheon of recipes codified by chef Marie-Antoine Carême in the 19th century. It is haute cuisine. (Gooch likes to eat mac salad while sipping pinot noir.) Elizabeth David, the British food scholar-revolutionary, declared in 1962, “It is one of the best and most useful sauces in existence.” Egg yolks and oil are whipped into one, never to be parted, two liquids transfigured — without a hint of heat, with only the steady beating of a whisk — into a snowy singularity, fluffy and thick, greater than the sum of its parts.

For Gooch, farm-to-table ends here. There is only one mayo for his mac salad: Best Foods. If you live east of the Rockies, you know it as Hellmann’s, first bottled by a German immigrant in New York in 1912 and now enshrined in homes across Hawaii. “Some people get fancy with Kewpie and that’s fine, but it’s not mine,” Gooch says.

Note that in Hawaii, mac salad isn’t just a side dish; it’s a condiment unto itself. Expand your mind. The chef Sheldon Simeon, at Tin Roof on Maui, has been known to purée mac salad in a blender and squeeze it over cabbage, then layer it with kalbi beef drippings in what he calls the “Bottom of the Plate Lunch” salad. Gooch drops a scoop into beef stew, lushness on lushness. “Fold one in,” he advises. “And g’nite.”

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