A serving of Spam, seasoned with survivor's guilt
By Moira Manion
Moira Manion is a writer and cartoonist, as well as a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.
I didn't care that Dad had almost starved to death in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila during World War II, and that, for him, the Spam given to him by the liberating American troops had been salvation. It was disgusting and I didn't want it near me.
Actually, I'm not certain when and how exactly my father first ate Spam. After he came to America, he never talked about the war and the atrocities he and his family survived when the Japanese invaded the island of Mindanao and they fled from their coconut and cattle plantation into the jungle. All Mom ever indicated was that, after the camp was saved when Dad was 15, he was introduced to Spam. It was a lifelong love. He didn't have it often, but on special occasions, such as Feb. 3, the anniversary of the camp's liberation, Dad would eat fried Spam.
When Mom opened a can I had to leave the kitchen. The stuff looked like pureed human flesh, smelled fishy and had a yellowish gelatin covering that made me gag. I tried to ignore how the raw, pink smell would change as the sliced Spam cooked in butter in the cast-iron skillet, becoming a buttery, meaty, crisp scent that made my mouth water.
It was survivor's guilt that finally made me try Spam.
Dad never said anything about me being spoiled because I hadn't gone through the horrors he had. I was an Irish-Filipino girl growing up in mid-Michigan in the '60s, during the height of the Civil Right conflicts, and I had my share of racism and xenophobia to deal with on a daily basis. It helped that, during my early years, we lived in a neighborhood that was almost all black, and our mixed family was welcome and befriended. But even my best friend, who was as black as my hair — we called each other Cousin — one day asked my mother, "Mrs. Manion, ma'am ... you're white and I'm black. But what's Moira?"
I didn't know what Dad had escaped, but something in the air of my family indicated that it had been Very Bad, and that I should be grateful that I had Hamburger Heaven, Mighty Mouse and pop bottles I could return to the grocery store for a penny. And I should be grateful for those rectangular blue cans with pictures of slabs of Spam on them.
At some point, maybe out of curiosity, probably out of duty, I stayed in the kitchen while Mom cranked open a Spam can, probably wrinkling my nose and sticking out my tongue. The browned slices were placed on my breakfast plate and a child-sized glass bottle of Log Cabin syrup set down with it.
I poured the syrup skeptically. I remember that first, tentative "Y'all think you're making me do this but it's my idea" bite. I imagine my eyes got big. I know I cleaned my plate and I know I asked for a second helping.
This was followed with my school lunch bag containing fried Spam on Wonder Bread with Miracle Whip and Cracker Barrel Extra Sharp Cheddar. I wasn't eating it because Dad liked it. I was eating it because it was good, and kids who had baloney and olive loaf sandwiches looked at my sandwiches enviously.
Sometime after elementary school I grew out of Spam. It's 75 years old this month, and I haven't eaten it for 30 years now. But come next Feb. 3, I'll hold my nose, squint my eyes, crank open a tin, and heat butter in my cast-iron skillet. In memory of all the men, women and children who died in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, and my Dad, who lived. And for me, because I'm still here.