I understand Spam is bad for us but I feel like I’m turning my back on an old friend by banning it from my menu.
I know a lot of Natives hate Spam but I only have good memories of this processed food. Growing up, Spam sandwiches were weekend food staples. Sometimes we’d try to get fancy and melt some cheese on it and serve it on toasted bread for that four star hotel, gourmet feel.
If we got tired of sandwiches, we’d cut up some potatoes and fry them with Spam to create our version of NDN hash. Spam was a solid hunger killer on days when money was tight and grocery trips were out of the economic possibilities. Other Natives might have disliked Spam but we dismissed their disdain as that of well-to-do natives who could go out and eat in restaurants whenever they felt like doing so. In fact, many of us viewed eating Spam sandwiches (or Spam and potatoes) as a dividing line between us and them.
Now comes news that Spam is most likely increasing diabetes in Native Americans. According to research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a survey of 2,000 Native Americans showed Spam eaters were twice as likely to develop diabetes as their non-Spam-eating counterparts. The cause is likely to be due to obesity and obesity is thought to be increased by eating processed meats instead of unprocessed meats. Spam is high in sodium which is also related to a host of other health problems.
So, it seems Spam is bad for you and the sensible action to take is to cut Spam and other processed meats from our diets. By doing this, we are making healthy nutritional decisions and modeling good choices for those who might follow our lead. And yet, though I know this is the right way to go, I can’t help but feel a bit like a traitor for turning my back on my old ally and hunger killer, Spam. That feeling is magnified by the realization that I will have to balance my diet by embracing healthier foods in general and vegetables in particular.
You see, I’ve never been a big fan of vegetables. I even put a political spin on it by claiming to be resisting the products of colonial agriculture. In my vegetable avoidance speeches, I would speak of being the descendant of meat-eating warriors who resisted farming as a tool and symbol of Manifest Destiny.
Some of my Native friends would press the issue. What about decolonizing our diets? they’d ask. I’d reply that this was an argument concocted by out-of-touch indigenous professors looking to define a battle in which they knew they could safely engage.
Some would continue the line of questioning and remind me that corn, beans, potatoes, etc, were Indigenous foods. I’d concede this and boast that I ate corn on the cob, refried beans and French fries.
What about sugar, breads and fast food? Well, I never developed a good argument for those foods. I just rationalized my consumption as a personal weakness. Besides, by eating such food items (Spam included), I could claim solidarity with those who lived in unhealthy food deserts.
Of course all of my responses were self-serving and superficial, but at least they were annoying enough to kill further discussions of why I didn’t eat healthier.
Now I am going to make better food choices and I’ll have to add Spam to the list of foods to avoid. I’m sure I’ll have to add other neo-NDN foods to this list at some point and I’ll probably go through the same separation musings with those too.
I recognize not everyone has this option and will continue to eat Spam because it’s cheap (or free) and available. This means I’ll likely encounter Spam again in some Native home. I’ll have to eat it because it’s considered rude to refuse food from our hosts. So if you know I’m coming over don’t feel bad about serving Spam, fried potatoes and fry bread … and some red Kool-Aid … oh, and get some chocolate cake too.
Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/rckiowa. He is from Carnegie, OK and currently lives in Denver, CO.