The first Saturday in May presented the low-key Main Line borough of Narberth with an embarrassment of traditions, most of them cheerfully imported, to observe and toast: Derby Day and Cinco de Mayo fueled the local pubs, and the leafy margin between the ballet academy and the SEPTA tracks was strung with party lights, though the occasion in that instance was difficult, at a glance, to pin down.
In any event, the clear winner for exotica was set up at the Borough Hall near the outdoor basketball courts. This was where Connie Majka, a local hula instructor, was throwing her annual Hawaiian fund-raiser and luau - "the only luau for 3,000 miles," as the flyers at the train station put it.
For six or seven years, she'd hosted smaller versions at her home - cooking the kalua pig and pineapple rice herself - to support her hula habit and, eventually, to repay the hospitality of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, which donated teaching space.
But with upwards of 75 guests showing up and more than a few unfamiliar faces, she opted for a public venue and hired a pro, caterer John Familetti (the "Luau King," she dubbed him), another local, who runs food services at Episcopal Academy.
This does not mean, of course, that a hometown luau need slavishly replicate island technique: To make kalua pig the old-fashioned way, one is instructed to dig a suitable fire pit in the ground, line it with river-smoothed lava rocks ("which don't explode when heated"), stuff the pig with the hot rocks, cover it with banana or ti leaves and roast for roughly six hours.
The Narberth version (adapted from A Taste of Aloha, put out by the Junior League of Honolulu) takes about the same amount of time - an hour at 400 degrees and four or five hours at 325. But it substitutes an oven for a hole in the ground, and involves, instead of the whole pig, pork butts rubbed with coarse salt and liquid smoke, then wrapped in spinach leaves (which don't seem to influence the taste very much) and heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Shredded later and served from chafing dishes in the borough hall's upstairs meeting room, it was meltingly tender, succulent stuff, reminiscent (if a dash of vinegar and red pepper had been applied) of North Carolina pulled-pork barbecue.
Other accommodations were required. When someone asked to light the tiki torches he'd fanned above a centerpiece of coconuts, pineapple and ferns, Familetti blanched: "I don't have that much insurance!"
And the gentlemen ladling the mai tais at the door didn't even pretend to follow the recipe, which variably calls for dark and light rums gently moderated with almond syrup or Cointreau, a touch of lime or Triple Sec. The drinks were pretty much Hawaiian Punch spiked with white rum, though as the evening wore on, the disrespect for authenticity didn't appear to have a chilling effect on sales.
Connie's mother, Dottie, draped paper-flowered leis around the necks of guests. Souvenir screens painted with palms were hung behind government-issue ficus trees. Youngsters charged about, red flashers blinking from their sandals.
Majka (pronounced MY-cah) proposed an order of business: "After we say grace, we're going to open the buffet table so we can get you fed and get you drinks, so if we make any mistakes, you won't notice."
And so it was that 130 or so guests loaded up on the bok choy and broccoli stir-fry that Familetti sauteed on the spot, and from trays of mashed sweet potatoes and bananas crusted with macadamia nuts (which may find a spot on our Thanksgiving menu), roasted chicken and pineapple rice and, with gusto, the Kaluha-style pig.
"Definitely better than most mass-feeding luaus in Hawaii," assessed Ron Stanford, a filmmaker who lived in the islands. (His wife, Fay, an artist, is a hula student at the school Majka runs with Suzanne Aumack.)
The food and drink indeed had the desired effect: If there were any mistakes as Majka and her 10 cohorts swayed through their paces, changing as the beat picked up, from vivid muumuus to the twitching grass skirts of Tahiti, they were little noted on this tropically warm evening in May, nor long remembered.