The 11th annual Waikiki SPAM Jam, described as a “cultural tradition,” takes place this Saturday! There will be free food, entertainment, Hawaiian crafts, and a family-friendly atmosphere! Booths will be set up to collect donations of SPAM for the Hawaiʻi Food Bank!
Sadly, Iʻm not allowing myself to go to this important cultural event because I am a recovering SPAMaholic. Even though itʻs been two years since my last consumption, I donʻt feel strong enough to resist temptation if I am surrounded by SPAM cuisine, SPAMMY the adorable mascot, and smiling people wearing SPAM t-shirts and eating SPAM covered macadamia nuts. Drool.
In my Reading and Composition course last semester, a unit focused on writing about food practices in the Pacific. One of our topics was “gastrocolonialism”: the study of how foreign foods invade and colonize native stomachs. In the Pacific, this involved taking native lands for military bases, plantations, or hotels, controlling native fisheries, establishing capitalist wage economies, growing monocrops for export, and force feeding natives unhealthy, albeit convenient, imported foodstuffs. This diet regime change separated us from our connection to indigenous land and water, as well as agricultural and aquacultural knowledge. It also separated us from traditional and functional exercise routines (hunting, planting, harvesting, fishing, etc). Nowadays, we leave the gym all sweaty and tired yet we have no food to show for it.
SPAM, invented in 1937, is one example of an invasive food. Our endemic stomachs had no natural defense for the predatory deliciousness of SPAM. When we saw those first shiny cans, we had no reason to be afraid. When we bit into the salty and fatty protein, we were too busy reaching our bliss threshold to notice its addictive powers. How could something so affordable and tasty want to kill us?
The rest is genealogy: my great-grandparents fed my grandparents SPAM. My grandparents fed my parents SPAM. My parents fed me SPAM. As my indigenous grandmother explains: itʻs cans of SPAM all the way down.
Pacific peoples suffer from some of the highest rates of health diseases in the world. When I learned that SPAM was unhealthy for me, I quit cold turkey SPAM. It was difficult, like rowing against militarized currents, but I have endured. Sadly, there are many others out there who are addicted to SPAM for economic, cultural, nostalgic, or culinary reasons. Sadly, many canʻt quit even if they wanted to. Tragically, it is too late for many others. Like many of our islands, the bodies of our peoples (our friends and families) will become uninhabitable due to the rising tides of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases linked to a colonized diet.
For decades the Pacific has been a fatty food dump for the first world. The fats of empire are in our stomachs, suffocating our organs. When my students brainstormed ways we could fight this addiction, I shared with them how some independent Pacific nations banned invasive foods from entering their islands (f*ck the WTO!). In 2000, Fiji banned mutton flaps. In 2007, Samoa banned turkey tails.
Pause on this: a nation banned turkey tails to protect its people. Then I asked my students: What if Hawaiʻi banned SPAM?
The students audibly gasped. Some gravely warned that people would riot in the streets! Others unironically claimed that people would go on hunger strike! One suggested that a “pink market” would develop and SPAM would become the new, cheaper meth.
Most of my students could not imagine a world without SPAM; they could not imagine “gastrosovereignty.”
A few students, on the other hand, asserted that Hawaiʻi should ban SPAM (I gave them decolonial extra credit). I explained that Hawaiʻi, or Guam, or American Samoa, does not have sovereign power over SPAM. My stomach is a colonial subject of the United States of SPAMerica. My Pacific body is an American SPAM dump.
Indigestion is not an event; it is a structure. This year, Americans will eat about 45 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day–thatʻs 45 million fatty turkey tails that someone at this global table is going to be forced to eat.
This year, 25,000 people will attend the Waikiki SPAM Jam. This year, seven million cans of SPAM will be consumed in Hawaiʻi. Every day this year, tens of thousands of pigs will be killed and their worst parts will be made into SPAM. Every morning I wonder if today is the day I give in to my cravings. Every night I fear that all we will have left to eat will be our own squeals.