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Outbreak Voices: A Hawaiian Man's Journey From DJ To Farmer

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Joy can be so hard to come by these days. But Tommy Kahikina Ching has found some.

TOMMY KAHIKINA CHING: I love cooking. It's my chance to be an artist.

SIMON: He recently made a masterpiece.

CHING: I finally learned how to make spam fries, and I love them.

SIMON: Spam fries - lightly breaded fried strips of Hawaii's favorite canned meat. Tommy Kahikina Ching lives with his wife on the big island in the small town of Kailua-Kona. He's 67 years old. And even before the pandemic, he was busy with two part-time jobs, a tour guide and a disc jockey.

CHING: I have done radio here in Hawaii for the past 25 years. I'm known as the Polynesian Pirate. The Pirate played everything. You would hear him play Frank Zappa and then Frank Sinatra and say, let me be frank. You would never know what was coming next. And I did it with the theater of the mind. I was on a pirate ship that sailed around the islands. You would hear the creaking ship throughout the night of the radio show whenever I spoke. And as I would drop anchor each night at 7 o'clock, you'd hear (mimicking drum sound). Tonight, folks, I'm off the coast of Maui and rocking your world right up until midnight.

SIMON: Then the first lockdowns and a stalled economy. Mr. Ching was laid off from the radio station and furloughed from his other job. Faced with less money but more time, Tommy Kahikina Ching started a different kind of work. He decided to grow his own food.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHING: I am not a farmer. I live on the dry side of the island with minimal rainfall. So we have to find plants that can survive in a drier climate. So I had to ask around. And I asked my neighbors, what works in your yard? And what doesn't work? Oh, eggplant works fabulous in a dry climate. So all of those things were a process. I now have Roma tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini, fresh papaya, bananas, Tahitian limes and things like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHING: One of the dishes that I like to make is with the eggplant. And what I do is a lasagna, leave out the pasta, and I replace it with eggplant. And I make my own tomato sauce with tomatoes that I can get from the garden. I make my tomatoes. I'll use my rosemary from my yard, ground beef. And it is one of my favorite dishes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHING: My neighbors are only 20, 25 feet apart from me on both sides, so we try to share our talents and skills. I can cook. He's an electrician. He likes dishes I make from stuff I get from my yard. And I cook for him. I go, hey, want to try and help me with these lights at my house? And whatever you want, man, I'll bring over for you tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHING: You should take the time to figure out growing your garden and your own fruit and vegetables for self-worth. I didn't have to go by those tomatoes. I went out in the backyard. And then I went up and cut the papayas for breakfast and the bananas that we're going to have for lunch. So beat your chest like Tarzan and say, I can do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHING: One thing I like about sharing - I think Hawaiian people, it's in our nature. It's in our culture to do that, whether you're friends, family or just the guy down the street. The more people do that, it'd be a much happier place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Tommy Kahikina Ching, also known as the Polynesian Pirate of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.