Even though I’d never had any desire to go to Hawaii, I knew what to expect: hot sun, rolling waves, sand everywhere. It was these expectations that made it so I never wanted to visit. I hate the heat, I can swim but am blind without my glasses (so wear them and lose them in the water or not wear them and swim right into a shark), and sand gets into everything. So it was to my great surprise that I booked a ticket for a week’s vacation in Waikiki in 2007. I wanted to get away from everything from awhile, and Portland to Honolulu was the cheapest ticket.
Hawaii did meet my expectations, though in an upside down fashion. The sun was bright but not hot, the waves were gentle not violent, and the sand – well, the sand still got everywhere. I immediately fell in love, as many tourists do. The flowers were large and fragrant, the people were kind and friendly, the food was fresh and delicious.
Indeed, the food might have been the biggest surprise of all. Many restaurants, as one might expect, served fish and tropical fruit. Most menus featured a fusion cuisine, dishes that included elements native to Hawaii, but also to Korea, Japan, China, India, and Thailand. Many of my meals mixed the exotic with the familiar, even at McDonald’s, where I could get a side of pineapple with my McNuggets. But I was in for one more surprise: Spam.
As the daughter of Midwestern parents, I grew up eating a lot of Spam. I do not know what about the canned meat attracted them; perhaps its low cost or the distinctive ham-and-brine taste. Daddy would fry Spam, and then we’d eat it on white bread, sometimes with cheese. Usually we’d have macaroni and cheese as a side dish, as a nod to Southern cuisine (where I lived with my Midwestern parents). I continue to eat Spam even as an adult, though only occasionally. I like to make eggs and biscuits on the side.
Spam is an important part of Hawaiian cuisine, a relic of World War II. One can buy any number of Spam cookbooks at Hawaii’s bookstores. And the grocery stores carried types I’d never even heard of, let alone tasted. By the time I left, I’d had to buy an extra duffle bag to carry it all home. And so it was that one of my most memorable Hawaiian experiences was eating Spam.
Not long after arriving in Honolulu, I decided to visit the zoo. I have always loved zoos, and luckily for me, the Honolulu Zoo was just a block from my hostel. The morning was perfect, warm but not overly humid, though drops of rain still clung to the trees. When I arrived at the zoo, I found some parts to be flooded. Intrepid zookeepers pushed the water away with wide, flat brooms.
By lunch time, I was ravenous. Like most zoos, the concession stand food was unappetizing and overpriced. The cheapest option was something called “Spam Musubi.” I had never heard of it; I was not even sure how to pronounce it. If the hot dog had not been $4, I doubt I would have even given the Spam a second thought. I hesitantly asked the kindly old woman behind the counter just what it was.
“Spam in teriyaki, with rice,” she explained, pointing at a small, brick-like object. The Spam sat on top of the sticky rice, like some kind of oversized piece of sushi, and was wrapped in a piece of nori (seaweed). I gulped and handed over my money. Thrift won out.
Sitting at the table, picking at the Spam Musubi with chopsticks, I was not sure what to make of the dish in front of me. How to eat it? Why to eat it? What would my father, of the fried white bread sandwiches, say? I called my sister for moral support.
“Guess what I’m eating!” I exclaimed when she answered, though I had yet to take a bite.
My sister is also a Spam fan, so she was quite intrigued by my lunch. She was jealous of the food in front of me, as she had once spent a fun-filled day at the Spam Museum in Minnesota. She had sent a Spam shirt to our father; he wore it proudly until his death. I apologized for not being able to find a Hawaiian Spam shirt for her. I later sent her about a dozen cans for Christmas.
Finally, I took a real bite: delicious! The sweetness of the teriyaki sauce combined with the saltiness of the Spam was delightful, not dissimilar from maple bacon or sausage dunked in syrup (other Midwestern delicacies). The nori added a touch of bitterness to the dish, counterbalancing the sweet and salty. I ate it all, finally giving up on the chopsticks and switching to a fork.
I ate Spam several more times on that trip; Spam Musubi is sold at all of the gas stations and convenience stores, next to the hot dogs and sandwiches. I have made it at home a few times, minus the nori. Several Portland-area restaurants and grocery stores sell it, too, so I can grab a quick bite when I’m feeling nostalgic for Hawaii. Most people who visit Hawaii love it, of course; there is nothing unusual about me in that regard. But my love for Spam, and my joy in eating it at the Honolulu Zoo, that belongs to me.