How Saipan got Obsessed with SPAM

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.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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