A Taste of the Marianas


It is quite a release from the need to maintain a social face in public to be able to dangle a limp boiled okra over one’s head in the privacy of one’s kitchen. Never mind that the lengthy okras come all the way from California as the local variety tend to be short, if there are any cultivated that reaches the market.

We are clear that the Taste of the Marianas is anything but local products, though, admittedly, the offered varieties are voraciously consumed locally. Okra among the Ilocano farmers, formerly in construction, or old-timers from the previous era, is a common fare and enjoyed but is not abundantly grown for the market, though the new Chinese farmers try to have more promising produce but are known to use abundant supply of pesticide and insecticide, damn the regulations.

Our farmers’ traits are not the subject of our reflection. The food on our table is. Sadly, in many instances, they are not local to the Marianas grounds but are imported from elsewhere. The corn beef and Spam are leftovers from the U.S. military occupation that tinned pork tailings for the Spam.

The four-Saturday spread at the American Memorial Park in May, however, has other benefits other than culinary. For instance, two years ago, I ran into Lino of Finasisu, who discovered that I was the “writer” he read in the newspaper, and would just call me such when I ran into him at the Post Office.

He was flabbergasted on our last run-into at the P. O. when he discovered I was teaching at an island elementary school. He just assumed I was a well-endowed retiree who was doing everyone a favor with “entertaining” (his phrase) accounts in the dailies. That I was financially hassling, at my age, at least, made him glad he is “retired” in the CNMI rolls. Like many others “schooled” in his time, on island and elsewhere among Pacific Islanders is that being on the doll from Uncle Sam was an unabashed goal in life! No shame here.

I am not being condemnatory here. My Dad, a faithful cleric “sacrificing” health and hearth wherever assigned by the Methodist Church in the Philippines lived the life of a pauper in Honolulu, and one time when one of us had a financial crisis, he went to the bank to withdraw his lifetime savings only to be mauled by immigrants of his kind who wanted the benefits of his withdrawal. His dear UMC that he served so faithfully and well did not even bat an eye on his sudden penury, a situation he bewailed more with sadness rather than bitterness.

That is probably why, along with the okra, the ampalaya (bitter melon, amargoso in Spanish that was appropriated in Chamorro) comes next as a favorite Ilocano vegetable. We were taught not only to live with but also to relish the gift of bitterness, a trait that contributed to the resilience of the race wherever they went in the planet. Also, it turned out two decades ago that Vietnamese in SoCal who had the veggie in their diet had low incidences of leukemia. Racially, African-Americans have low incidences of the cancer tissues, a piece of data that figures prominently in current research.

I’ve playfully referred to the increasing size of the cheeks on our faces and bottoms, both a genetic and diet propensity. While living in the Marshall Islands in the ’80s, it became clear that the two items of refined sugar and high-grade spirits, even the ordinary brew of beer when consumed in excess, was anathema to the Pacific Islanders’ physique. Of course, we also inherited Europe’s prescription of magic and fantasy to replace superstition in religion to entice our fancy, so getting high on anything was of a high premium. It was fun to get our heads up in the sky, especially during holidays.

The consumption of methamphetamine in the Marianas is considerably high, and the new opiate, fentanyl, 50 times more powerful than the ordinary opium, prescribed by medical practitioners for certain conditions, is a rising cause of abuse among illicit drug users.

Food on our tables is our focus, and the Taste of the Marianas, an annual celebration now in our societal calendars, is just as good an occasion to huddle with neighbors and welcome visitors on the tail end of spring. (Funny to refer to the four seasons when we are virtually “summer” all year round!)

My students at our school cafeteria hardly touch their greens when served their lunch. Already, a few of the 7-year-olds exhibit body sizes that will delight the tailors for size of girth and butt. The school snacks do favor Fresh Gourmet’s dried fruit blend, Rice Krispies’ chewy apple cinnamon granola bar, Keebler’s animal cracker, added to my Teacher week’s chocolates that add frequency to our lagoon pathway visits more than usual.

Interestingly, China noticed an increase in obesity and overweight among its population and advised a cut down on consumption. Guess who the vehement objectors are? Yup, European and United States’ providers of beef and pork.

Sadly, it is too late for the Taste of the Marianas.

Jaime R. Vergara | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Jaime Vergara previously taught at SVES in the CNMI. A peripatetic pedagogue, he last taught in China but makes Honolulu, Shenyang, and Saipan home. He can be reached at pinoypanda2031@aol.com.

Related Posts

Disclaimer: Comments are moderated. They will not appear immediately or even on the same day. Comments should be related to the topic. Off-topic comments would be deleted. Profanities are not allowed. Comments that are potentially libelous, inflammatory, or slanderous would be deleted.