Guam is considered the Tabasco capital of the world. On average, each Chamorro consumes 4 ounces of Tabasco each year, which is more per capita than any other country! The mainland United States is a far-flung second place, with less than one ounce consumed per year by each American. My Authentic Indigenous Grandfather was the first in my genealogy to become initiated into the Tabasco cargo cult. He dabbed a drop of Tabasco on his neck before attending the Feast Day of the Immaculate Consumption. “This is Chamorro cologne,” he said proudly. “Eau de Pika.” My Authentic Indigenous Grandmother called it, “Chamorro åmot.” and whenever I felt sick she made me Tabasco tea. For skin burns, snake bites, rashes, or muscle aches, she exclaimed: “Just Tabasco it!” My Authentic Indigenous Father inherited this spicy legacy and baptized everything in Tabasco: rice, fish, soup, eggs any style, spaghetti, vegetables, salad, pancakes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, pickles, coffee, fruit, apple juice, the communion host, and even ice cream! “Don’t be shame,” he said. “You know the President of the United States, The Queen of England, and even astronauts at the International Space Station all love Tabasco!” Growing up, there was always a bottle of Tabasco on our dining table. When I asked my Authentic Indigenous Father, “Where does Tabasco come from,” he bellowed in his tahdong, myth-making voice: “The Legend of the Origin of Tabasco has been passed down for generations. As told to me, there was once an ancient Chamorro chief named Maga’lahi Donne’ who lived during the Great Drought of Flavor. To save his people from dying of bland taste, he boarded his canoe and sailed beyond the horizon. After many months at sea, he finally spotted an island made of salt. Ghosts on canoes surrounded the island, whispering: “Remember the Atakapa-Ishak.” When he reached the island, an Authentic White Man named McIlhenny welcomed him and said: “This is your destiny.” Together they picked the finest Tabasco peppers and mail the seeds to farmers in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. “Now we wait,” the Authentic White Man said. Months later, bright red peppers arrived in the mail. The peppers were ground into a mash and stored with salt in oak barrels. For three years, Maga’lahi Donne’ waited. He passed the time with self-guided tours of a wildlife refuge with snowy egrets, the ancient salt mine, the secretive seed vault, the historical museum, the reasonably priced gift shop, the tasty restaurant, and the participatory cooking classes. At night, he contemplated the translation of the word, “Tabasco” as “flooded land.” After the mash was finally strained, mixed with vinegar, and bottled, McIlhenny gave Magaʻlahi Dohnne’ a bottle of Tabasco and said, “Save your people with this.”[i] At the time, I was so inspired by the adventure of Maga’lahi Donne’ that the next day I smuggled a bottle of Tabasco to my class at St. Anthony Middle school. During lunch, I sold a drop for a dime to the other kids. I made nearly $5 until Sister Dolores (whom we called Sister of Perpetual Meanness) busted me, dragged me by the ear to the Principal’s office, and scolded: “Tabasco is the blood of Satan! It will make your breath smell like sin!” My Authentic Indigenous Father picked me up after detention, stared at me sternly and said: “Next time, son, don’t get caught.” Afterwards, we ate at Kentucky Fried Chicken to try their newest flavor: “Pika Chicken,” which is fried chicken marinated in real Tabasco! That night, we made care packages for my Authentic indigenous Uncles and Cousins in the United States military, who were stationed throughout Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. Inside were remedies for homesick Chamorros soldiers: Spam, Vienna Sausage, and Corned Beef (aka “The Holy Trinity of Canned Meats” aka “The Chamorro Food Pyramid” aka “The Micronesian Triangle”), a rosary, and a bottle of Tabasco. I will remember that fateful day years later when I decided to not enlist in the military, and instead moved to Hawaiʻi and opened a Chamorro food truck called “Pika.” Sadly, no one knew what “Chamorro” was so business was as slow as a well-fed Polynesian riding a moped in rush-hour traffic on the H-1. One day, as I strolled on the beach at sunset to contemplate new recipes (Pika poi? Pika laulau?), I saw a beautiful, post-Gauguin islanded woman in a Maui built bikini and Hawaiian Kingdom flag pareo with a plumeria behind her right ear. I jogged towards her like a Baywatch lifeguard intent on saving her from drowning in solitude. She turned to me as she took a big bite of a SPAM musubi. “Aloha, Wahine,” I said, and slowly pulled out my bottle of 5-fluid ounces. “Would you like a drop of my Tabasco on your musubi?” A true Pacific Islander romance. Nine months later, Hormel Foods proposed to McIlhenny Company a Tabasco-flavored SPAM called “Hot & Spicy SPAM” (Ingredients: Pork with Ham, Mechanically Separated Chicken, Water, Salt, Modified Potato Starch, Sugar, Sodium Phosphates, Potassium Chloride, TABASCO® Brand Dry Red Flavoring (Red Pepper, Distilled Vinegar, Salt), Sodium Ascorbate, Oleoresin of Paprika, Sodium Nitrite.” Since I couldn’t afford a proper ring, I peeled off the Tabasco logo, kneeled, and wrapped the paper diamond around her finger. “There are 720 drops in every 2-ounce bottle of Tabasco,” I told her. “Will you share every drop with me?” ʻAe she said ‘ae I will ‘ae.
[i] (In reality, Tabasco actually arrived on Guam after World War II aboard military cargo ships when the soldiers rationed the hot sauce to my grateful, hungry grandparents to spice up their monotonous post-war lives).
This poem was published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamorro from the Pacific Island of Guam. He is an associate professor at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa.