Generally, I am a sensible eater. According to my sensibilities, anyway. To borrow a term I read somewhere, I am a flexatarian. Mostly vegetarian, but very flexible, with no apologies. I don't mind if my spinach salad comes with a few bacon crumbles. Or a plate of shoyu pork and rice. Hapa rice, of course - half brown, half good ol' sticky white.
It's tough on us locals, trying to adhere to healthy eating habits now that we all know better. It's a challenge for anyone who grew up when butter and eggs and meat and potatoes (or sticky white rice) were considered wholesome foods - not just healthy, but downright decent. But adopting a low-fat, preservative-free diet is especially difficult for those of us raised in the cargo culture of the islands.
June Cleaver would never have put Spam on her dinner table; I can't imagine a pantry without it. And I don't even cook. Yet I always have Spam and sardines in my kitchen cabinet.
As a rigid flexatarian, I feel no guilt over my stash of canned comfort food. Nine times out of 10, my meals are freshly prepared and nutritious. But every so often, I'll devour a can of creamed corn or my all-time favorite - canned asparagus with a dollop of mayonnaise. No apologies, no guilt. I think comfort food is good for you; that's why it's called comfort food.
We were fortunate to count many farmers and fishermen among our family friends, so we enjoyed great local produce and seafood, including tako. I loved playing with the octopus as it squirmed in the sink, its tangled tentacles gently clinging to my fingertips. Of course, I always left the kitchen before cooking time.
My favorite comfort foods, the ones I crave when I'm under the weather or feeling a bit blue, are the treats I remember from early childhood. Like ice cake. My babysitter, Auntie Yoshiko-san, made the best ice cake with Mission grapeade base. The base came in a little can, just like Exchange orangeade, the classic beverage of choice for all local kids. Exchange made a grapeade base too, but it wasn't as good as Mission. Auntie Yoshiko-san would let me fill the juice can with water and count how many canfuls went into the pitcher before pouring the sweet, sticky stuff into metal ice cube trays.
Ice cake was the perfect cool-down snack following an afternoon game of hide-and-go-seek or chase master. To warm up on a chilly morning or a rainy night, nothing beat a cup of hot chocolate made with the Ghirardelli cocoa in the orange box with the formidable eagle on it. Wait, I take that back. The best hot beverage to dip your Saloon Pilot or Hilo Creme crackers into was a cup of coffee with cream and sugar. More accurately, a cup of Carnation evaporated milk with several heaping spoonfuls of sugar and barely more than a splash of coffee. Any more than that would stunt our growth.
Actually, I wasn't much of a dipper. I preferred to eat my crackers like open-face sandwiches, with butter and guava jelly on my Saloon Pilots, peanut butter on Hilo Cremes. My favorite sandwich, even more than Mom's tuna salad with little bits of American cheese, was the butter-and-sugar sandwich. Yes, white sugar on white bread held together by soft, creamy butter.
I haven't had a butter-and-sugar sandwich in many years, but I do indulge myself in other childhood favorites from time to time, figuring the emotional payoff outweighs the nutritional deficiency. Spam with string beans, canned tuna on hot white rice (gotta be steaming hot and sticky white), kim chee and mayonnaise sandwiches, I could go on and on.
I believe that healthy diets are relative to ethnic and cultural factors. Dr. Terry Shintani created the Waianae Diet in the belief that Hawaiians needed to return to their traditional native diet for their physical and spiritual health. The Waianae Diet proved to be more beneficial to overweight islanders than modern Western approaches. As a local girl of Japanese and Okinawan descent, I think my body is genetically predisposed to thrive on pork and seafood and tofu. And Spam. In moderation, of course, and supplemented by lots of fresh local fruits and veggies, with an occasional splurge for my sweet tooth.
Just yesterday, shopping at Whole Foods, I discovered a wonderful new treat, one that fits perfectly into my flexatarian, ethno-influenced diet. Mo's Dark Bacon Bar - dark chocolate with bits of Applewood smoked bacon. It's almost as good as the chocolate covered cuttlefish at Maui Specialty Chocolates. Almost. After all, cuttlefish is closer to my gustatory roots. I don't think Okinawans cured their pork.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o column appears every Wednesday. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.