Isle of Spam

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | jan. 20202

I was a skinny 4-year-old kid living in the second-floor apartment of a three-flat walk-up at 63rd and Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago in 1950. It was hot in the summer and smelly due to the Union Stockyards nearby. Winter was cold and grimy with coal ash. The vegetables at the grocers were potatoes, carrots, wax-coated parsnips and onions with maybe a head of iceberg lettuce occasionally. My dad worked in the linen department at Marshall Field's State Street store and made just enough to keep us alive. Meat was always a treat for me and my brother, but at the end of the month, when funds were low, my mom relied on Spam to get a meal on the table. She would cross hatch the Spam and stick cloves between the slashes. Sometimes she'd put some canned pineapple rings around it. Between the four of us, we shared that little roasted Spam with a generous portion of fried potatoes and onions. I really liked the sweet taste of Spam, not realizing until much later in life that it was made with the proverbial pork leftovers of snouts and assholes. Life in Chicago was tough then. The neighborhood I lived in was ethnic with Poles and Slavs to the south, Irish to the north and newly arrived southern African Americans to the west. Crossing under the Illinois Central tracks through the long dark tunnels always put you at risk of a beating. So, when my dad got a job with the USDA and was transferred to Hawaii, my brother Quentin and I were really excited. Little did I know then that I was headed to the Isle of Spam.

Hawaii in 1952 was not the vacation paradise it is today (or maybe it was paradise, then we ruined it). When I got off the SS Lurline, a Matson Line steamship, and got used to the smell of the Plumeria flowers on the leis that were put around my neck, I noticed the smell of roasting pineapple and thought about the last Spam meal we had. The roasted pineapple smell was coming from the Dole Pineapple processing plant with its iconic water tower shaped like a pineapple. The aroma of burnt sugar was also distinctive as workers set fire to the sugar cane fields, to burn off the leaves, before harvest. Pineapples and sugar cane were major industries back then, complete with narrow gauge railroads to transport perishable product and lots of laborers from China and the Philippines to help with the harvest.

The island of Oahu, barely 10 years after the Pearl Harbor bombing, was armed to the teeth as a focal point for returning WWII soldiers and prepping for the Korean war. Our first home was a Quonset hut across Kalakaua Avenue from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. I used to run across the street and hang out with the beach boys. When we moved to Kailua, on the windward side of the island, platoons of marines from the Kaneohe Marine Corp base marched by our house weekly on Kailua Road, chanting their ribald ditties on their way to the Bellows Field wilderness for war games. My dad took my brother and me to Kailua Beach early in the morning in 1956 to see the flash from a giant H-Bomb test southwest of us at Bikini Island. For adults it was a scary time, but my brother and I were blissfully ignorant of those tensions.

Because of the war and its remote location, Hawaii did not have a reliable meat supply. Milk, cheese, beef, pork and chicken were shipped from the mainland by boat and were expensive. Everyone had a garden. My family had papaya, coconut and banana trees and cultivated tomatoes, green onions and lettuce. Many people had chickens and they were constantly waking us up with the early morning crowing. But there was one item that was a staple in every Hawaiian kitchen: Spam.

Spam was introduced by the Hormel Corporation in 1937 and gained popularity worldwide after its use during WWII. But in Hawaii Spam is king. Residents here have the highest per capita consumption of Spam in the United States. Last year 7 million cans of spam were consumed in Hawaii. Les Gamble was a former PT boat captain who settled in Hawaii after the war and started a Honolulu-based food brokerage business that was the exclusive sales agent for Spam in Hawaii. Gamble was a real Damon Runyon character who often dressed up as a clown during promotions at local supermarkets. I remember seeing him at the Piggly Wiggly (now Kalapawai Market) in Kailua when I was a kid. During his tenure, Spam and rice became the islands' meat and potatoes. As part of the iconic plate lunches, spam is usually pan-fried and served over rice along with the iconic macaroni salad. With a fried egg on top it is called Loco Moco. But its most common use is musubi. Musubi is Spam that has been cooked in a teriyaki sauce then covered with sushi rice and wrapped in Nori (seaweed). My mom liked to dice up Spam and then use it in her version of pork fried rice (one of my favorite dishes to this day). When I was in grade school, I used to take my school lunch money across the street to a little Japanese deli where I would get a Spam Onigiri which was a ball of sushi rice with spam and a pickled plum (umeboshi). This was great stuff then. I wish I could get some up here (Little Tokyo are you listening?). With the renewed, 1970's popularity of Pokè (diced tuna with Hawaiian sea salt, Limu (seaweed) and ground Candlenut), it was only a matter of time until Spam Pokè became a thing.

By 2007 Spam was on the menu at McDonald's and Burger King, unfortunately. Hawaii with a large complement of Portuguese workers called Spam “Portagee steak" back then. Mr. Gamble was instrumental in getting new varieties of Spam developed for Hawaii including Spam Teriyaki and Spam Macadamia. Mr. Gamble passed away in 2005 and is buried in Kona on the Big Island. His family and Hawaiian friends gathered at the Christ Church in Kealakekua and sang the Hawaiian hymn of love “Ekolu Mea Nui" (Three Greatest Things). Even though he was from South Dakota, Les was loved by the Hawaiian people for his contributions to society at many organizations including The Queens hospital where three of my siblings were born and one of them died. In 2004 the Waikiki Spam Jam was started and is celebrated annually. The largest Musubi ever made was 312-feet long and was consumed by 25,000 people. Next year's Spam Jam is scheduled for April 25, 2020. The main drag in Waikiki, Kalakaua avenue is closed from 4-10 p.m. to honor this iconic food. I have returned to my childhood home innumerable times over my adult life, twice to bury my parents in Punchbowl Cemetery where my brother Quentin, who died at age 11, is buried; once when I was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the Viet Nam War and many times to just enjoy the relaxing life while on vacation.

If you visit Hawaii and want to taste some authentic plate lunches that feature Spam in one of its glorious island forms, try the Rainbow Drive-In at 3308 Kanaina Ave. in the Kaimuki neighborhood of Honolulu. It's not gourmet food, its food that hard-working Hawaiians eat for lunch every day. It is a good, friendly, reliable restaurant that's been serving good food since 1961.

On the Big Island of Hawaii there are two plate luncheons I like and they're both in the town of Waimea. Waimea is on the north side of Hawaii near the Kohala Coast. The town is right near the giant Parker cattle ranch and the area is more like coastal Oregon or Washington. It is definitely not like touristy Kona. Go to the Hawaiian Style Café on Mamalohoa Hwy for breakfast and order the Big Mok Loco Moco — steamed rice is topped with Spam and Portuguese sausage (Linguica) a fried egg and brown gravy — ono (delicious)! I would recommend that you spend the next four to six hours under an umbrella at the beach. Then come back to the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue in Waimea for lunch. Try the Spam Saimin. Long before there were ramen noodle bowls there was Saimin. It is soba noodles in broth with a fish cake, sliced Spam and thin-sliced green onions. While you're there try the Spam Musubi and meditate on the pure bright light of stupidity.

Maui is my favorite Island and in Hawaii, the locals refer to Maui as Maui no ka'oi — “Maui is the best." The best plate lunch, the Piko Hawaiian Style Café is relatively new (2017) but has renewed the plate lunch idea. If you are there try the mixed plate lunch with lemon-butter-caper Mahi-Mahi, teriyaki beef and Huli-Huli chicken. Located at 1215 S. Kihei Road. You won't be disappointed. Aloha!

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