Sunday, June 5, 2016

Food and Beverage

The challenge of staying well-nourished on a desert island

There is a good reason why Midway Atoll was never settled by the Polynesian inhabitants of the main Hawaiian Islands. The three small islands together make up just a little over 2 square miles in land area, have no freshwater lakes or rivers, are mantled with fine white coral sand not well suited for agriculture, and are over 1,000 miles from the main Hawaiian Islands (the closest place that could be considered “civilization”).  The first people to attempt to inhabit the atoll, employees of the Pacific Commercial Cable Company, were provisioned by ship and dug wells to provide fresh water (interestingly, small coral atolls though lacking in fresh surface water often contain a thin sub-surface “lens” of freshwater that resulting from it having a lower density than seawater).  It turned out though that food delivery by ship was pretty unreliable. During those times Midway lacked a harbor or pier and the coral reefs that surround the islands made landings difficult, especially during inclement weather. Supply ships frequently turned back before making their deliveries or, worse, wrecked, leaving the island's residents hungry and frustrated. It didn’t take long for the Cable Company employees to take matters into their own hands and soon they were importing soil, plants, and livestock to grow food on their own and reduce their dependence on the outside world for their provisions.

Despite all of the development that has occurred at Midway since that time, keeping the current residents – 50 or so folks at any given time – hydrated and nourished is still a major challenge. The small wells that provided freshwater to early inhabitants could not satisfy the demand once the island’s population swelled to several thousand during World War II; during these times efforts were made to capture rainfall (Midway receives approximately 43 inches a year) and store it in cisterns. Today, the large runway of Henderson Field  (approximately 7,800 feet long and 150 feet wide) on Sand Island is used for this purpose.  Rainwater falling on the runway flows into grates and is then pumped into three, 4 million gallon water tanks.

Three large tanks allow for storage of 12 million gallons of water on Sand Island, Midway Atoll (Laysan ducks in the foreground enjoy puddles created by a rainstorm).

From there some of the water is sent to an elevated water tank to for irrigation, fire hydrants, and other uses which do not require the water to be purified. The remainder goes to Sand Island’s water treatment plant which uses chemical sterilizers (something akin to chlorine) to purify the water for domestic use. Though the water coming out of the taps in houses and offices is potable, many people (including me), prefer some additional purification before drinking.  A small water and ice house next to Charlie Barracks is open 24/7 providing double filtered water and ice cubes  a fabulous amenity!

What about food?  Similar to residents over a hundred years ago, the folks living here rely almost entirely on food brought in from the outside world but fortunately the deliveries are now much more reliable. Food is transported to Midway by both ship and aircraft.  Every six months the privately operated 185 ft supply vessel M/V Kahana, delivers a load of food, fuel, and other supplies to the atoll.  This is how sacks of rice, canned food, cases of soda pop, and other heavy, non-perishable items make it out here. Quantities of frozen foods are also delivered in a refrigerated container. Supplementing this are deliveries made via air. Every two weeks or so, a small chartered jet makes the round trip from Honolulu to Midway carrying with it 12 passengers along with mail and various cargo which includes various fresh foods including fruits and vegetables. The couple of days following a flight are always exciting for this reason, as suddenly fresh blueberries appear replacing the previous week’s regimen of canned fruit.

As in times past, today’s Midway residents find it worth their while to raise some of their own food locally. A large greenhouse stands just to the east of the Chugach building. Inside is a modern hydroponic garden where Sumeth “Hin” Camseecha raises a wide variety of vegetables, including lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and Thai chiles. There is also an outdoor Community Garden which serves multiple purposes. Anyone wishing to grow their favorite foodcrop can plant it here (as long as it’s not an invasive species) but this is also an important gathering place. This is the source of some key ingredients used in Thai cooking on the island including kaffir lime and lemongrass. On Friday afternoons I always try to stop for a beer when  Adoon Sripitak, the unofficial master of the garden, hosts weekly get-togethers which are attended by a diversity of island residents.

Residents of Midway Atoll are lucky to have local, fresh produce to supplement their diet. Top: A bountiful crop of greens being grown in the hydroponic greenhouse; Bottom: Friday afternoon at the Community Garden. 

So now you know where the food comes from but how does it get transformed from raw ingredient to the plate? The Clipper House is the island’s only and best restaurant. Open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Pongsakorn “Pong” Wichaisawatdi and his three assistants cook up a tasty variety of foods appealing to both American and Thai palletes. It is hard to imagine Midway without the Clipper House as it is truly the social hub of the island as pretty much everybody takes at least some of their meals here. It is truly the only game in town but I find the eclectic mix of Thai, “American”, Italian, and other cuisines to be extremely appealing and my appreciation for Thai food continues to grow (I am still, however, very partial to the coconut curry dishes with Chicken Coconut Curry still occupying the number one spot). Mixing is not uncommon and the other day I saw someone eating a Chicago Style Hotdog with Pad Thai tossed on top as a finishing touch.

The Clipper House Restaurant at Midway Atoll where head chef Pongsakorn “Pong” Wichaisawatdi serves a variety of dishes to suit the tastes of patrons from both the United States and Thailand. An outside patio with a fine view of the lagoon is popular with US Fish and Wildlife Service staff and volunteers.
The only other source for food on the island is the Ship’s Store which has snack foods, some frozen foods and most crucially a selection of beer, wine, and liquor.  Unfortunately, the beer selection has not kept up with the times and only American Pilseners (read Bud, Coors) and two brands of Thai beer are offered (Chang and Singha). A co-worker asked me the other day if I'd noticed the cabinet with the sign saying "fine wines". No I hadn't, I replied.  "It's empty" she explained with some disappointment.  Those with more eclectic tastes must rely on care packages from home (Oregon IPA please!). These days with the ease of ordering food via mail, some islanders also supplement their diet through or other outlets. It is also possible to special order certain fresh, refrigerated, and frozen foods through the Ship’s Store and I have taken advantage of this getting fresh fruit and plain Greek yoghurt for breakfast.

While no one is ever going to starve on Midway, the limited availability of some foods still takes some adjusting. Also a consideration are the limited hours of the Clipper House which don’t always jibe with when I am hungry.  I have taken to making my own breakfasts (which includes real, whole-bean organic Arabica coffee mailed to me from Eugene, Oregon, rice cakes from, and fresh foods acquired from the Ship’s Store) and doing take out for dinner (5 pm is a little early for me). All in all though I certainly can’t complain.  Compared to the folks living here a hundred years ago, my food options are almost unimaginably varied and I have enjoyed the free time I have acquired since coming here that otherwise would be spent in the kitchen, not to mention the opportunity to sample some very fine Thai food. If anything, life on Midway could lead one to become "overnourished" making it even more important to stay active and get plenty of excercise. That'll be the topic of a future post!


  1. Rob Taylor - you are the bomb!

  2. Nice newsy letter, Rob! Thanks for the update!

  3. Living high on the hog. Thanks for sharing.

  4. No local seafood, or is it so ubiquitous it's like coal to Newcastle -- no need of mentioning?

    1. There was occasional freshly caught fish -- typically yellow fin tuna or wahoo (ono) -- when either the supply ship Kahana or the FWS safeboat were allowed to go out to harvest some. This didn't happen too often but when it did it was a real treat with island residents getting to taste some really fresh sashimi.