KAILUA-KONA — A lot has changed in Saeko Sato’s 100 years — “it changed a lot, lot, lot.”
“We didn’t have cars those days too, when I was little,” she said. “Very few cars, here and there. Once in a great while, a car used to come around.”
Sato, who celebrated her 100th birthday at the Regency at Hualalai Thursday, said growing up in Hookena, most ground was covered by foot — whether going to school or other local places like Fujihara Store or Aiona Store.
Her neighbors, she said, got a Model T and when she was about 15, she would ride in it to the store. And over time the region continued to grow.
“Ever since then it started to grow a little, a little, more and more and more,” she said. “Today it’s just like a city now!”
Sato was born at Okoe close to Milolii in South Kona and at 14 months old, she was adopted by Yoneji and Tsugi Kimura as their only child.
After marrying her husband, Richard Sato, at age 20, the couple moved to Honokaa to work on the sugar plantation.
“The coffee price dropped so much, you cannot make a living in Kona,” she said. “So we had to move out.”
She and her husband spent about five years working on the plantation, a big change from her days on the land her family leased for coffee.
“Big, big difference. I never liked the plantation,” she said. “Plantation is so hard; I’d rather have coffee.”
During the war, her husband worked on military construction projects around the island and after its end, they moved to Honaunau.
Sato’s husband oversaw state construction projects in the area, and she went to work in school cafeterias, spending the next 23 years baking up favorites for the region’s students. Twenty of those years, she said, were at Konawaena High School.
From her buttery shortbread cookies to the pies with perfect crusts, her baking became renowned at the school.
And her former students, she said, haven’t forgotten her talents.
“They even remember me,” she said with a laugh. “I’m 100 years old, but when they see me on the street — ‘Hi, Mrs. Sato!’”
Two Class of ‘67 Konawaena graduates, Candie Abril and Maura Cabilin Patao, are among the students who remember Sato’s baking, particularly the shortbread.
“They were the best,” said Patao. “They were so buttery.”
“Even now,” added Abril, “when we talk about shortbread cookies, we’re always remembering, ‘Remember those shortbread cookies at Konawaena?’”
Sato’s son, Norman Sato, said she didn’t use recipes, and the method behind her perfect pie crusts can’t be taught.
“It’s a feel,” Norman Sato said, “and it changes by the day depending on the weather.”
As students, Abril and Patao often worked in the cafeteria with Sato when they were assigned cafeteria duty and said the woman was always a pleasure to work with.
“Every time we were assigned cafeteria duty, it was fun to go and work with these ladies,” said Abril.
Sato’s recipes were also immensely popular within the family, who all had their own favorites.
In addition to his mother’s baking, Norman Sato recalled his mother’s omelettes.
“The simple omelette,” he said, “but she did it really well.”
For granddaughter Allison Yuzuki, one dish that came to mind was her grandmother’s dried fish made using a fish caught by her grandfather.
“They would soak it in teriyaki sauce and then dry it and then put sesame seeds on it,” she said. “And I don’t eat seafood, but I loved that fish; it was so good.”
And more than her cooking or baking, it’s her generosity, her family said, that sets her above the rest.
“Her whole life she was only concerned about how we were raised, so very loving,” Norman Sato said. “Like she would give her shirt off her back if she had to.”