by Noelle Marie Falcis
Recently, I made myself a bowl of eggs, rice, and spam. I had woken up craving it in a way that I had not longed for something in a long time. It was one of those mouth salivating, jaw aching type of wants that don’t disappear until you satiate it. I jumped from bed, stretching first one way and then the other, stepping lightly across my wooden floors. I’m on my own now; I haven’t lived at home since I was a teenager— that’s probably the last time I had had eggs, rice, and spam, cooked by my tay. It was interesting, craving so crazily for something that had been absent in my life for a long time, something that hadn’t crossed my mind in years.
It was early. Grey light filtered through my windows though I had covered the glass with a large cotton print of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. I reached into my cupboard, touching my fingertips to cans, the coolness startling against my skin just waking. I rubbed the grit out of my eyes and stretched further, rising onto the tips of my toes. My hand, startled, grasped a familiar rectangular shape far, far in the back. It caused a batch of memories to softly skim behind my blinking eyes. The only way I can describe it is like one of those old View-Masters where you pointed the lens into the light and stared at a picture reel, momentarily reliving prehistoric times or visiting the Antarctic. What I saw was my past and what I was reliving was warmth. I saw home, my bahay. I pulled the spam out and stared at the navy blue can, at the fat yellow lettering. I thought of tay and the endless batches of fried rice he made for us, for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner. We had spam in rice and spam in Top Ramen. We sometimes ate it with French fries and we often got creative, smashing slices of grilled spam between rolls of Hawaiian bread with thick slabs of Velveeta cheese. We almost always had an accompaniment of eggs whether they were sunnyside, over medium, or scrambled.
My tay got his recipes from his inay, our lola. I remember how even when we visited her, we ate spam— except it was always a bit more special. Lola’s eggs, rice, and spam held magic that our tay’s did not. There was a taste quality on our tongues that couldn’t be duplicated. Hers was the equivalent to being taken out for ice cream, never mind the fact that we might have eaten spam the day before. When she had passed away and her ashes were flown to the Philippines, there had been a tender ache in my stomach. At the funeral, I had ironically thought of how I would never taste that dish ever again. It had made me incredibly sad, then I thought myself selfish, and it made me feel ashamed.
As I pulled the lid off, listening to that uncomfortable shriek and pull like a satisfied sigh, I dumped the meat onto a plate. I frowned. The truth is: spam is disgusting. It is slimy, it doesn’t resemble meat, the sodium count is high, and— I don’t actually know what I’m eating. For a moment, I almost didn’t want it any more, but my memories kicked in and I thought of tay and I thought, Yes. Yes, I am making this for myself this morning and it is going to be good and delicious and I will enjoy this. I pulled a knife and cut thin slices resembling tiny doors falling on their sides. The pan warmed quickly, the sesame oil flooding the room. I slid my tongue along my teeth. I tossed the meat into the heat and pulled three eggs, quickly cracking them into a bowl and whisking. I removed the meat; I tossed in the eggs. The slabs of spam, I chopped until they were the size of diced onions. When I was done, the eggs were just about there. I tossed the diced meat back into the pan and proceeded to drop balls of cold rice from last night’s dinner into the mix. It sizzled. It burned. I added garlic, both fresh and fried. I took the magic Magi and added that in too because, of course, I don’t use msg, but I still like the kick. I shook black pepper in abundance and whispered “It’s snowing dark” to myself, an old thing I used to say that somehow always made me feel better about my own skin. I wondered whether or not I should make a crisp side of chopped onions and tomatoes dripping in vinegar and tayo.
Quiet with concentration, I folded the rice into itself, halo halo until it was evenly dispersed. When it was done, I set the flame to low and went about preparing that side dish.
It occurred to me then how much of my childhood subsisted on Spam, Vienna sausage, potted meat, and Yoshinoya, on special occasions. This, of course, means something entirely different to me than it did before.
Once upon a time, my two kuyas and I rejoiced when our tay cooked because eggs, rice, and spam was delicious to us, it was what we knew would always be there, and we knew that our tay knew dozens if not hundreds of different ways of cooking with it. I relished having potted meat spread on Wonderbread for my lunch and when our parents worked late, the three of us often heated up Vienna sausages in the microwave, soaking in its own salty packaging fluids. We cut the soft sausages with our spoons and mixed them with rice, flavoring it even saltier with additional tayo. If we were brave that day, we cooked eggs and added it in, joking that we were just as good as tay.
In grade school, I remember how other students would look at our potted meat sandwiches and crinkle their noses. They would stare at our Vienna sausage and ask incredulously, delightfully, curiously, “What is that?” They’d note the Spam and sometimes they’d laugh and point, “My mommy said Spam is for poor people.”
I had never thought of it that way. I thought our food was regular food because it had always been regular to us. I had never thought of food as a representative of class or parenting. I thought our parents were good parents, my tay a good cook. It wasn’t until my classmates that I had started to see my parents and our food in a different light.
The problem though, was I liked our food. I was thin as were both my brothers. My mother was beautiful, shaped like an eight. My father looked as though he had the potential to become heavyset— but he had never become so. If Spam and Vienna Sausage and potted meat and Yoshinoya were bad for us, literally and figuratively, it did not show on us. But after altercations with other kids, I wanted what they had. I wanted those Lunchables and those tiny pizzas; I wanted Bagel Bites and hot dogs and strudels.
Here’s the thing. We never had a TV dinner. We never ate hot dogs unless they were the pink ones from the Filipino market. No matter how much we begged, Lunchables never appeared in our refrigerator. Breakfast for us always consisted of rice and tayo plus something else— we never had sweets like Poptarts and struddles and waffles and pancakes. All of these things were as foreign and unhealthy to us as, perhaps, our food was to them.
When I finished preparing my side dish and I placed both the fried rice and the onions and tomatoes in their respective bowls, I had sat at the table and stared at the steaming food in wonder. I know what Spam means to us, to Filipinos, to Islanders, to Asians, to poor people. I know how engrained it is in our diets because of the war, because America had left each of us unfairly destitute, crippled, and starving. I know that my father knows how to cook this meat because World War II is not that far away and our grandparents suffered that time and lived through that prolonged, impoverished horror that was its aftermath. They had received Spam into their lives and whether they viewed this slimy, pasty meat with revulsion or not, Spam was a link to survival. Spam meant the opposite of death. Spam meant we live just a little bit longer. Spam meant we will live long past this. So they cooked Spam. In many ways. In all ways. And my tay grew up in that. And then he immigrated here, into a new sort of hell. Into a country that didn’t want people like him, into a country that didn’t plan to support people like him, into a country that was not built upon helping immigrants of a darker complexion. So what did he subsist on? It was Spam. Spam pulled him into the next decade and then the next.
My kuyas and I, we’ve seen the residual of our tay’s fight. He survived and despite the class conditions working against him, he moved us, all of his children, past that. Each of us has had the opportunity to go to University. One has a degree in business. The other in microbiology. And I have completed up to a Master’s degree, often contemplating going back for a Doctorate’s. I haven’t touched Spam since I left my parent’s home, my home. It took me by a quiet surprise that I knew there was a can in my cupboard. In fact, there were two. I don’t remember buying them, but I ponder how I have unconsciously bought them as if somehow preparing myself for a time when I would need to survive, for a time when I would need just a little something to pull me through and into the light.
Sometimes my tay sends me pictures of the dinners he cooks for himself. He cooks Top Ramen with eggs, tosses lunch meat into the soup. Sometimes he has sandwiches with marmalade and Spam. His texts always read something a little like this: “Yummm… delicious!” or “Fancy dinner tonight!” or sometimes “I am eating good this time!” And in that last, he might have thrown some spinach into the mix, his hand visible in the photo, pointing at a few splashes of wilted green. In those moments, I want so badly to rush to my own kitchen and make him a real meal with fresh meat and fresh vegetables and bring it all home to him. I want to scold him and tell him that he doesn’t have to eat like that anymore. Sometimes, I do these things, but, often, I can’t afford that long drive home. This fact also often makes me feel ashamed.
I picked the bowl up, brought it to my lips. The steam rose in waves into my nose. Spam doesn’t truly exist in my life anymore, though it embodied much of my formative years. I wonder if the reason behind it being so long absent is that due to the vigilance of my grandparents and my parents, my life has, in comparison, been completely absence of the tragedy and struggle that they have known and lived through. I wonder if after I finish that second can, if I will ever again subconsciously purchase another. I am strong and well in life. Other than the small hiccups of continual adjustment to everyday occurrences, there is not much that rocks my boat nor puts me on the verge of collapse. I took a large bite of rice, the saltiness delicious in my throat. I felt the pellets of fried garlic and I bit down on them hard, collapsing them into fractions of their former selves. The flavor exploded on my tongue. It tasted so good and, for a moment, I considered cooking it again the next day. I sat back, took bite after bite, living in each miniature eruption of taste. The bitterness of the onions and the acidity of the tomatoes perfectly balanced against the starch of the rice.
As I came to finishing and the bowl was near empty, I closed my eyes, contemplating. The thoughts that formed were these: I want to bring my tay into the new world.
Noelle Marie Falcis received her BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing at the University of California, Irvine and her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her fiction explores her heritage and both the deserts and cities in which she grew up. She uses fiction to better understand the diasporic, post-colonized life and how it has affected her as a second generation Filipina American. She teaches English and Dance within Los Angeles, CA. Her work has been published in VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, Drunk Monkeys, Banana Writers, and Gingerbread House Magazine.