How Saipan got Obsessed with SPAM

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BY ARIN GREENWOOD. On Saipan, the most populated of the Northern Mariana Islands, people eat a lot of SPAM. SPAM sushi, SPAM-fried rice and SPAM-n-Egg McMuffins are just the start. In fact, SPAM-heavy foods are so common there that grocery stores devote entire aisles to various canned meats, with SPAM in its many varieties (Hot "˜n' Spicy, Low Salt, Smoke Flavored, Lite and so on) taking up the majority of shelf space. In Saipan, SPAM is kind of a default food, eaten as a matter of course for breakfast, lunch, merienda (mid-day snack) and dinner just as people in the mainland United States might take in bologna, peanut butter or air.

Meat and Greet

There are a lot of different ways to look at the Micronesian love for SPAM. From a public health perspective, it's a disaster. According to a recent report from the Commonwealth's Department of Public Health, more than 50 percent of annual deaths on Saipan are attributable to diabetes or diabetes-related illnesses. In fact, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) reportedly has the third-largest per-capita diabetes rate in the world. Eating a lot of SPAM, which is high in fat, sugar, salt and calories (in addition to ham, water and sodium nitrate), almost certainly contributes to these disturbing figures.

The historical perspective, however, is much more textured. To understand how SPAM came to play such a large role in the Saipan diet, it's useful to know a little about the island's geography and history. Saipan sits approximately 1,500 miles south of Tokyo and 3,200 miles west of Honolulu in a remote part of the Western Pacific that less detailed maps leave a solid blue. It's part of a chain of 15 islands called the Marianas, 14 of which (including Saipan) form the CNMI. The fifteenth island is Guam, currently a U.S.-owned territory.

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The Mariana Islands are thought to have been colonized by long-distance canoers from Indonesia some 3,500 years ago. Westerners arrived later via Ferdinand Magellan, who reached Guam in 1521. Then, Spain claimed sovereignty over all 15 Mariana Islands in 1565 and began colonizing them in the mid-17th century. After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain ceded Guam to the United States. Germany bought the 14 islands to the north the following year, but their ownership didn't last long. In 1914 during World War I, Japan ousted the German government and made the Marianas part of the Japanese empire, a political move that played a key role in the early stages of World War II. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it was nearly simultaneously attacking the U.S.-owned Guam, executing the operation from bases in Saipan and nearby Rota. By December 12, the Japanese had taken over the island, staking claim to the entire Mariana chain. In response, the U.S. declared war on Japan, and promptly sent troops into the Pacific Theater.

In the summer of 1944, the American troops reached Saipan, where a tremendously vicious, bloody battle ensued. It was vital that the Allies control the islands of Micronesia, since the newly-built B-29 bombers had the range to travel round-trip from the islands to Japan, providing a desperately-needed attack base. Though the Battle of Saipan lasted less than a month, it decimated the island. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed, the island's structures and farms were razed, and food was scarce. The natives, many of whom hid out in caves to avoid the fighting between American and Japanese troops, were literally starving to death.

Give Me SPAM or Give Me Death

aspam.jpgEnter SPAM. During World War II, the U.S. Army was reported to have bought more than 150 million pounds of SPAM, plenty of which ended up in the Marianas. Unlike other meats, SPAM wasn't rationed, and, better yet, it required no refrigeration. This meant large, available supplies of a meat with a long shelf life. For soldiers, that often translated into three SPAM meals a day for weeks on end.

For almost a year after the Battle of Saipan ended, the United States placed the surviving islanders in an internment camp called Camp Susupe. And while some of the detainees' food was procured through subsistence farming and fishing, the U.S. government and the American Red Cross provided the rest. This, of course, included a steady stream of SPAM. For native islanders, to be given some of the canned meat on which the U.S. troops had been grumblingly subsisting was to be saved from malnutrition.
Camp Susupe's doors officially opened on July 4, 1945, and the United States has been politically and socially connected with the Marianas ever since. The CNMI became a U.S. commonwealth in 1978, and since then, it has imported much of its food from the United States both to satisfy American mainlanders who are living on Saipan and to feed the local population, who no longer need SPAM to stave starvation, but merely love it.

Interestingly, while Micronesians love SPAM, a study by Dr. Brian Wansink of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that many U.S. military veterans ate so much SPAM during their war days that they have expressed a life-long aversion to it. But it's not because it isn't tasty. During the war, many soldiers formed a strong association between SPAM and violence, perceiving it only as a substitute for better things they could not have. But for the islanders, the canned ham was a culinary step up.

Today, it's an open question whether SPAM can still be considered a step up, given its harmful health effects and the wide availability of what would seem like superior products. Nevertheless, SPAM remains one of the island's most popular foods. Perhaps, then, the next Battle of Saipan will be between local taste buds and the Commonwealth's Department of Public Health.

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July 28, 2008 - 4:30am
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