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The Straight Dope

Regarding Spam (April 30), is it true, as travel writer Paul Theroux claims, that the people of the South Pacific love their Spam because it tastes so much like... people?

-- Mary E. Sage, via the Internet

Marketing Spam must present some unique challenges. Imagine the conversation in the boardroom:

Spam Product Manager #1: I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Spam is hugely popular among the people of the South Pacific. The bad news is that, according to the famous travel writer Paul Theroux, the islanders dig it because they're ex-cannibals and they think Spam tastes like human flesh.

Spam Product Manager #2: Hmm. Is this a problem... or an opportunity?

Let's start with the facts, then segue to the rumors. Spam is one of the favorite foods of Pacific Islanders, including Hawaiians, who consume it in vast quantities and consider it a delicacy. This offends the upper-middle-class sensibilities of some writers, who consider Spam emblematic of all that is vile about Western culture. For example, in The Island of the Colorblind, Oliver Sacks writes about the fare served during his visit to the island of Pingelap:

We were all revolted by the Spam which appeared with each meal -- invariably fried; why, I wondered, should Pingelapese eat this filthy stuff when their own basic diet was both healthy and delicious?... How was it that not only the Pingelapese, but all the peoples of the Pacific, seemingly, could fall so helplessly, so voraciously, on this stuff, despite its intolerable cost to their budgets and their health? I was not the first to puzzle about this; later, when I came to read Paul Theroux's book The Happy Isles of Oceania, I found his hypothesis about universal Spam mania.

Theroux writes:

It was a theory of mine that former cannibals of Oceania now feasted on Spam because Spam came the nearest to approximating the porky taste of human flesh. "Long Pig" as they called a cooked human in much of Melanesia. It was a fact that the people-eaters of the Pacific had all evolved, or perhaps degenerated, into Spam-eaters. And in the absence of Spam they settled for corned beef, which also had a corpsy flavor.

Nowhere does Sacks say he actually believes Theroux's theory, and it seems clear enough that the often peevish Theroux is exercising his tongue-in-cheek -- uh, bad choice of words -- his ironic sense of humor. So far I haven't been able to get him on the phone to confirm this, but what's he going to say?

(1)Yes, it was a joke.

(2)No, it wasn't a joke. I have personal knowledge that human flesh tastes like pork and corned beef.

Still, these things have a way of taking on a life of their own. Lest our great-grandchildren find this wacky story circulating on the Intergalactinet in the year 2098, let it be known that:

(1)There is no correlation between alleged prior cannibalism and love of Spam. As Sacks notes, the Spam-craving Pingelapese had no tradition of cannibalism. More important, Hawaii, epicenter of Pacific rim Spamophilia, has been more or less cannibal-free since the arrival of Christianity in the early 19th Century.

(2)The popularity of Spam among Pacific Islanders can be readily explained by the scarcity and expense of other types of meat and the lack or unreliability of refrigeration. Fresh meat is stored primarily in a self-propelled biounit known as a "pig," which is slaughtered only for major occasions. If you're looking for a spicy bit to have with your breadfruit, you can't beat the convenience of Spam.

Still, let's concede one point to Theroux. Does Spam taste "corpsy"? Of course it tastes corpsy -- it's meat. We're just arguing about the identity of the deceased.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at [email protected]; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.