Order a Kava Bowl at Trader Vic's and you get a frothy concoction of rum and fruit juices. Order one on Vanuatu and you get a sticky porridge of chewed-up plant roots and human saliva. But before you decline, know that the roots are from the Piper methysticum, or kava plant, a powerful narcotic that makes the world go ‘round in many South Pacific cultures. Kava also has numerous medicinal properties, and elaborate social rituals attend its consumption on the islands of Melanesia. All of these are documented in Kava: The Pacific Drug, co-written by horticulturist Vincent Lebot, anthropologist Lamont Lindstrom and scientist Mark Merlin.
While chapters detailing the medical and economic potential of the plant are not without interest, the cultural significance of kava consumption makes for the most compelling reading. The islands of Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii and Papua New Guinea each have their own version of kava’s origin myth. “The broad leaf that extinguishes chiefs” has sprouted variously from a vagina, the skin of a foot, or the hair of an armpit.”
Preparation of the communal kava bowl hasn't changed much since 1773, when a naturalist on Captain Cook's second Pacific voyage observed Tahitian youths making a batch “in the most disgustful manner that can be imagined,” chewing pieces of the root, spitting the mass into a bowl, and mixing it with coconut milk, whereupon “they swallow this nauseous stuff as fast as possible.” JAB
Publisher: Yale University
Hardback: 256 pages