Isle of Canned Meat
Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands
By Arin Greenwood

If you’ve never eaten fruit bat, then you aren’t U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justice Kennedy tried fruit bat in the early 1980’s 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 1980’s 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, it’s often the case that when a fruit bat is spotted by someone familiar with Chamorro traditional fare, "it’s 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 Frank’s 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 Frank’s 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, "She’s still learning how to get around. Her mother would have taught her how to climb and fly if she hadn’t 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. They’re 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 Saipan’s 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 it’s like to eat a fruit bat.

"Well," says one member of the island’s famous family, a photographer specializing in weddings and other special events. "It’s 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 Saipan’s 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 can’t 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 cargo: chicken).

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 wasn’t 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, wasn’t 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 Guam.)

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. It’s the default food, I’m told; if a person gets home from work and doesn’t 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 cans.

And they sell like hotcakes. Here, Spam isn’t 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 don’t even understand why the Monty Python Spam sketch is funny, because Spam really does come with everything here—to 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 won’t eat it. Even Mike, my friend who wants to eat a fruit bat and may take a trip to Palau just to do so, won’t eat Spam (his friend who works for Hormel told him too much about how it’s made). But we’re still curious about why the otherwise classy and normal-seeming people we work with love to eat the stuff we associate with abject poverty.

"Is it better than lobster?" Mike asks Irene, one of the Supreme Court secretaries.

"Oh, yes," says Irene. "I’d pick Spam over lobster."

"How about steak?" asks Mike.

"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. It’s weird, to be honest, but she seems to mean it.

I ask Irene what Spam tastes like. She tells me it’s quite hard to describe, which I believe, but I’m curious enough to press on.

"Is it salty?" I ask.

"No," says Irene.

"Is it slimy?"


"Is it…" I can’t 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 haven’t eaten luncheon meat in 22 years and don’t remember a thing about it.

"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 I’m hungry as hell.