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Hawaii's Dubious Food Distinction

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Do me a favor. If you invite me to a holiday party, don't serve me Spam. I have nothing against others eating the pink meat; I once loved Spam myself. But I am upset about Hawaii's dubious distinction of being the No. 1 consumer of Spam in the country.

Doesn't it strike you as creepy that Hawaii -- the so called healthiest state in the nation -- eats more Spam per capita than any other state? According to Hormel Foods, the inventor of Spam, Hawaii residents eat five cans per person each year. That's 7 million cans of Spam annually.

It startled me recently as I listened to a Hawaiian music station on my car's radio to hear the announcer urge his listeners to donate Spam to the Hawaii Food Bank. Shouldn't we be trying to provide healthy food for needy people who need strength to face many challenges just to get through each day?

And then you have celebrity chef Alan Wong whipping up Spam delicacies for the rich. Wong calls his Spam treats "Spongs," for Spam served by Wong. Shouldn't Wong be trying to provide nutritious food for his wealthy clients, who are stressing out as they struggle to find new ways to pay fewer taxes?

NPR's Morning Edition recently featured a report on an innovative way for Spam-craving vegetarians in Hawaii to enjoy the taste of Spam without eating meat -- Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company's new Spam-flavored macadamia nuts.

Talk about bummed. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I read Honolulu Star-Advertiser writer Erika Engle gush: "Omigosh, teriyaki Spam straight from the can. Yes, Minnesota-based Hormel Foods LLC has formulated Spam Teriyaki and has chosen Hawaii to be its exclusive launch point."

In the first place, hardly anyone eats Spam straight from the can. Unfried Spam is slimy, spongy and repulsive.

And let's be honest. Hormel picked Hawaii for its dubious teriyaki launch because it knows we locals are suckers for Spam. New Yorkers would be repulsed if their city were singled out to carry the banner for the new Teriyaki Spam. It's difficult to imagine a Spam launch in Dallas. Or a debut in New Orlean's French Quarter featuring blackened Teriyaki Spam.

Writer Paul Theroux in his book, The Happy Isles of Oceania, said the people of the South Pacific like Spam so much because it tastes like people. Theroux wrote, "It was a theory of mine that former cannibals of Oceania now feasted on Spam because Spam came the nearest to approximating the porky taste of human flesh. 'Long pig' as they called a cooked human being in much of Melanesia."

Theroux later made it clear he was only joking. Besides, everyone knows cannibalism was not practiced in Hawaii. People in the Pacific like Spam because it is inexpensive, tasty and easy to store.

My own love for Spam began when I was about 10. My mother was what my friends called "a health nut." She made my brother and I bring our brown bread sandwiches and apple and carrot lunches from home to Punahou School. But on the days the cafeteria served the then-favorite Punahou student lunch, fried Spam with rice and gravy, we would beg my mother for money to buy lunch. Of course, we didn't tell her it was Spam day. If she found out Punahou served Spam, she probably would have transferred us to another school.

I continued to love Spam through my teen years. I kept my small black horse named Smoky at the stables in Kapiolani Park where the archery range is today. On Saturdays, I liked to walk from the stables to an okazuya on Monsarrat Avenue where I purchased -- for a quarter -- a Spam sandwich on white bread slathered with French's bright yellow mustard and carefully wrapped in waxed paper by the elderly Japanese counterwoman. I would return to the stables to fetch my horse to ride up the backside of Diamond Head to a secluded spot for a picnic where I privately relished my Spam sandwich looking down at the ocean while my horse munched on kiawe beans.

Today, like my mother, I have become a "health nut." I save my fattening calories for mango martinis and homemade brownies, not a few thin slices of Spam loaded with heart-damaging saturated fat and sodium. Sure, Spam is a cheap source of protein -- but not much protein, seven grams a serving, and that protein is encased in white grease.

Generally, it is a good thing to be No. 1, but Hawaii should think about ridding itself of its current distinction as the premier consumer of Spam in the United States. Since very few people here could be persuaded to give up Spam, my modest proposal is that Hawaii aim for being downgraded to the second biggest consumer of Spam in the country. Nobody pays attention to second-place winners. That would keep us from being a laughing stock.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie could propose a special tax on Spam to encourage residents to eat less. Abercrombie likes the idea of taxing unhealthy foods. He has unsuccessfully tried twice to push through a penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and other sugary drinks. But a Spam tax would probably sink Abercrobie's already faltering popularity.

At least Spam comes safely encased in blue cans. We don't have to worry about a raw Spam spill in Honolulu Harbor like Matson's recent molasses spill. Imagine thousands of pink cubes of "meat" floating around in the water being snapped up by frenzied sharks.

Talk about making Hawaii a laughing stock!

Postscript: A Canny Politician Ruminates on Spam

When I ran into Governor Abercrombie recently, I had an opportunity to ask him about Spam.

Here's how our conversation went.

Me: Governor, what do you think about Spam?

Abercrombie: "It isn't good for you."

Then, Abercrombie, usually a non-stop talker, paused. I imagined the wheels running in his politician's brain were alerting him ... no, no. Don't say that. Half of Spam-loving Hawaii will hate you.

Abercrombie continued, speaking thoughtfully. "Well, Spam fed a lot of people during World War II. It was helpful."

Another pause: "Spam is iconic in Hawaii. I suppose if you don't eat too much Spam, it would be OK. Like a fun food."

Abercrombie's then-spokeswoman Louise Kim McCoy tugged at his arm telling him it was time to leave Diamond Head where we had been guests at the opening of the new Bryan Clay Exercise Park.

Abercrombie, walking toward his car, laughed: "We're going out for lunch now -- a Spam lunch."