If youve never
eaten fruit bat, then you arent U.S. Supreme
Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justice Kennedy tried fruit
bat in the early 1980s when, as a judge on the 9th
Circuit, he made an official trip to the Northern Mariana
Islands, where fruit bat is something of a local treat.
To be fair, the early 1980s were heady times for
a lot of people, but not so good for fruit bats, which
are skinned and put into a soup, or else boiled and eaten
in their entirety, fur and all.
The bats, also known as
Flying Foxes, are a traditional food in northern Pacific
islands like Saipan, Rota, Tinian, and Guam. The bats
must have been pretty easy prey or the visiting judges
and Pacific Islanders pretty hungry, because so many fruit
bats were eaten that the species is now officially "threatened"
and protected by legislation.
On Saipan, the Northern
Mariana Islands most populated island and home to
the indigenous Chamorro, there are so few fruit bats left
that the ones who remain are too small in number to constitute
a "population," the official biologist's term for a demographically
cognizable group. Still, its often the case that
when a fruit bat is spotted by someone familiar with Chamorro
traditional fare, "its killed and eaten," says Frank,
who runs the Saipan Zoo.
The Saipan Zoo staff now
finds itself hand feeding and nurturing a baby fruit bat
that fell from under the wing of its mother when she was
poached. The bat, tiny with an almost doglike expressive
face and the softest skin covering its wings, lives in
a small birdcage in Franks home on site at the zoo,
and every day she holds it and feeds the baby bat a mixture
of pulverized apples and bananas. To be closer to its
adopted mother, the bat climbs up Franks blouse
using its handlike bottom claw in clumsy conjunction with
the single curved nail at the tip of each wing.
Frank cuddles the bat and
explains, "Shes still learning how to get around.
Her mother would have taught her how to climb and fly
if she hadnt been killed, but now we have to do
it." Still holding the bat, Frank pulls out of a bookshelf
a taxidermied sea turtle, another endangered delicacy
in the Northern Mariana Islands. "Have you eaten sea turtle?"
Frank asks us. We say, "No," and she says, "Too bad. Theyre
delicious. Like chicken."
At a barbeque later in
the week, over a meal of crab, shish kabob, fresh melon,
roast yam, and other island foods, members of one of Saipans
most prominent Chamorro families turn the talk to eating
fruit bats. It is admitted by almost everyone at the table
that on Saipan fruit bats are fair game, wildlife protection
laws be damned. This is the first time my friend Mike
and I, both clerks at the Northern Marianas Supreme Court,
have met people who are so forthcoming in their discussion
about personal experience with fruit bat consumption,
so we ask what its like to eat a fruit bat.
"Well," says one member
of the islands famous family, a photographer specializing
in weddings and other special events. "Its small
and tender. We cook it so that the fur is burned off,
but some people like to eat the fur." He said this as
if to suggest that only people with gross taste would
eat a furry fruit bat.
We press on and ask what
fruit bat tastes like.
While the photographer
thinks of how best to phrase the answer, his brother,
a big, big man with a lot of very visible tattoos, breaks
in. "It tastes like chicken," he said. "Like a really
delicious chicken." The photographer concurs. "Like chicken,"
he repeats, actually licking his lips.
Another interesting food
here on Saipan is something called the Balut egg. Balut
eggs are fertilized eggs, with embryonic chickens being
the thing that makes them a particular treat. They are
sold in Philippine groceries, and at gift shops catering
to Japanese tourists (in Saipan there are quite a lot
of Philippine groceries and gift shops catering to Japanese
tourists, so there are a lot of Balut eggs on the market).
Because I am a vegetarian,
my experience of most of Saipans delicacies is secondhand.
For a while I debate with myself whether a fetal chicken
is meat or egg, off-limits or fair game; when I finally
see the Balut eggs for sale I decide that although they
look like normal boiled eggs if normal boiled eggs are
colors other than white, I just cant eat a baby
chicken, especially not one dyed purple. Still epi-curious,
I ask the young woman behind the counter whether Balut
eggs are tasty. She says they are delicious.
"What do the Balut eggs
taste like?" I ask, fully expecting that they would taste
like everything else (in other words, like their fetal
The woman looks thoughtful
for a moment, then says, "They taste like egg." Then she
bursts out laughing and continues to laugh until I pay
for my sugar cookies and iced tea and get the heck out
of the store.
It wasnt until 1944
that the United States invaded and then conquered Saipan
in order to have a Pacific stronghold from which to fight
Japan (in fact, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki were launched off of Tinian, the second most
populated Northern Mariana island). Spam, then, wasnt
introduced to the island until the World War II U.S. soldiers
brought it with them. Today, people in Saipan eat so much
Spam that Hormel devised a special flavor of the meatstuff
just for the Saipan market. The Saipan Spam is hot n
spicy. (To be fair, Hawaii claims to be the market hot
n spicy Spam was devised for, and so does
On this island, where chicken
is the closest thing to a vegetable most people will tolerate,
Spam is the key ingredient in many if not most home-cooked
meals and is served in restaurants, too. Its the
default food, Im told; if a person gets home from
work and doesnt know what to eat, he or she will
pop open a can of Spam and do something with it. And not
even out of necessity. This is a choice. Though plenty
of fresh meat of all varieties (except for fruit bat)
is available, Saipanese grocery stores have entire aisles
devoted to the countless varieties of dead animals in
And they sell like hotcakes.
Here, Spam isnt a food that people eat just during
depressions or droughts, or when they want to be ironic
in a snarky urban way. People on Saipan are earnestly
devoted to Spam. They dont even understand why the
Monty Python Spam sketch is funny, because Spam really
does come with everything hereto give an idea, consider
Spam sushi, Spam pizza, Spam and eggs, Spam-fried rice.
These are foods which not only exist on Saipan, but are
normal things to eat for lunch.
As I said, I am a strict
vegetarian, and though the court staff has tried to convince
me that Spam hardly qualifies as meat, I still wont
eat it. Even Mike, my friend who wants to eat a fruit
bat and may take a trip to Palau just to do so, wont
eat Spam (his friend who works for Hormel told him too
much about how its made). But were still curious
about why the otherwise classy and normal-seeming people
we work with love to eat the stuff we associate with abject
"Is it better than lobster?"
Mike asks Irene, one of the Supreme Court secretaries.
"Oh, yes," says Irene.
"Id pick Spam over lobster."
"How about steak?" asks
"I love Spam more than
I love steak," says Irene, who is absolutely beautiful
and relishes food, sex, wine, cigarettes, and every other
good thing I deny myself. Almost every day Mike asks Irene
to compare other, more traditional delicacies to Spam,
and every day Irene gets a sort of rapturous expression
on her face as she describes the depth of her affection
for Spam. Its weird, to be honest, but she seems
to mean it.
I ask Irene what Spam tastes
like. She tells me its quite hard to describe, which
I believe, but Im curious enough to press on.
"Is it salty?" I ask.
"No," says Irene.
"Is it slimy?"
" I cant
really think of any other way than slimy or salty that
pork fat, liquified and then canned, might taste.
One of the other members
of the court staff, the new lawyer in charge of revising
the Northern Marianas Administrative Code, suggests that
Spam more or less tastes like any other luncheon meat,
which is unhelpful to me since I havent eaten luncheon
meat in 22 years and dont remember a thing about
"Does it taste like chicken?"
I finally ask.
Irene sits back in her
chair and rests her hands on her belly. She looks me squarely
in the eye and says, "It tastes like heaven. Heaven is
what it tastes like."
Well, I think, patting
my own diminishing midsection. No wonder Im hungry