In the Realm of the Senses
A five-part sensory experience of Las Vegas
Glorious Noise That sound I’m hearing is me
By Andrew Kiraly
I’ve been thinking lately about how quiet ATMs are. You get, like, what, a muted, perfunctory beep at the end when they spit your card back at you. What does their reticence mean? The idea, I guess, is discretion and privacy. But maybe there’s a little embarrassment in their quietness, too, a shadow of our furtive shame complexes about money and self-worth.
Contrast that with the sound of casinos. Broadly, it’s the same idea: These are machines of transaction. Except at casinos, of course, the withdrawals are going the other way. And because of that, their entire sound profile is colorized and saturated as a form of camouflage. The constant and continual dings, blips, and chimes of a casino are distractive little dopamine hits, celebratory jingles of reception, acknowledgment, and reinforcement not far removed from email notifications and text bubbles that say: You’ve got mail. You are recognized. You are loved. Keep feeding me. I can and will, given the chance, suck you dry. Keep feeding me. The attention-demanding regime of today’s ubiquitous drizzle of smartphone jangles and ringtones was innovated by Las Vegas casinos decades ago, long before we all began carrying emotional slot machines in our pockets.
There are other soundscapes in Las Vegas that reveal something about our city’s underlying character and illuminate my evolving attitude toward it. One of my favorites is Red Rock. Well, it’s not a favorite. It’s one of the most fruitfully problematic to me. When I was younger, I had this neurotically idealistic conviction that any excursion into a natural area had to be completely devoid of urban noise — that an absence of such noise ratified the area as natural. The proof, I suspect, would serve as some bulwark of hope against the inexorable creep of human despoilment. I’d hike deep into a trail at Red Rock, constantly pricking up my ears, sampling the noise levels: No, no, this will not do, I still hear the faint whoosh of cars on the loop, I hear the Dopplering buzz of a plane, the chep-chep-chep of a helicopter. I’d become blind and deaf to the beauty around me because I was obsessed with some notion of purity. I’d leave Red Rock feeling angry and cheated instead of relaxed and refreshed. It wasn’t long before I started to get burned out on resentment and sanctimonious unhappiness, and I realized I’d have to come to a more measured view, if only for the sake of sanity; I think this is conventionally known as growing up. Now I consider the sound of Red Rock — the static churr of wind in the trees, the birdsong, the distant whisper of traffic on the 159, even the shouts of some loudmouth assholes snapping selfies on the cliffs — as a phenomenal unit you can’t parse or particularize. It’s just what nature sounds like in the 21st century on a crowded, cranky planet; it’s the sound of how Vegas does nature. This embrace of perceived opposites as a tensive whole may be some deceptive yin-yang woo-woo I’m bullshitting myself with, but, whatever, it’s really helped me chill out about some things that I’d otherwise let drive me crazy.
But old neuroses die hard. I still have this sort of FWB thing going on with misbegotten notions of purity and the extremes it can imply; I still have a penchant for the monolithic and unilateral, for things that are just so completely one thing, and through their insistent singularity offer some promise of an answer. I recently learned that UNLV’s engineering college has an anechoic chamber — an almost totally sound-absorptive room. Its walls are made of one-foot thick masonry brick filled with grout, which are covered in 42-inch fiberglass wedges. The room even has its own separate, springy foundation to isolate it from the vibrations of other buildings. The chamber is used to study sound design in a controlled environment, but it doesn’t exactly look scientific. With its cascading ziggurat walls, yellow workshop glare, and scent of sawdust, it feels more like a secret ritual murder lair designed by M.C. Escher. Its description as an “acoustically dead” space is apt on more than one level.
The engineering professor in charge of the chamber, Douglas Reynolds, was amused by my request to spend some time alone in the room.
“We’ll see how long you can stand it,” he said in that be-careful-what-you-wish-for tone, explaining in so many words that extended exposure to a complete absence of sonic information might be too much of a mindfreak for me. “Your brain is programmed to process information 24-7. That’s why we dream. Even at night, our brain is making up its own information to keep itself occupied.” We’re having this conversation in the actual chamber, and it’s already weird. Our voices are eerily crisp and attenuated. The papery, desiccated sound coming from our mouths are the crumbs and bones left over after the walls have devoured most of it.
He agrees to leave me alone in the room for five or so minutes. The big door swings shut, quiet as snowfall. The complete absence of sound is immediately palpable as what feels like an insistent thumblike pressure on my eardrums, but it’s actually the constructively imagined palpability of a complete void of pressure, of vital information, so what I’m actually experiencing is the feeling of my ears and a good part of my brain being suddenly, punitively, belligerently starved.
It is not peaceful or even quiet as we know it. It feels like my entire psyche is a fingernail scraping against a chalkboard. With that feeling, because of that feeling, I sense an ominous quaver of piano somewhere inside me — the beginnings of a panic attack — which certainly isn’t helped by the fact that this is a room of such fearsome, carnivorous sonic vacancy that I can hear my own pulse.
Five minutes stretches like a timeless funhouse mirror into okay yeah I get it now I’ve had enough. I smile and give a vampy shrug when Reynolds opens the door, but my brain is screaming for food, water, air — for stimulation. I feel a need to flee. I’m relieved to be outside. I gorge on glorious noise on the walk back to my car, and I’m mentally murmuring hellos to all of it: Hello, footsteps on hallway tile, hello, ambient hum of building, hello, doors chocking and chuffing, hello, students chattering and typing. Hello, air, hello, birds, hello, cars. Hello, Las Vegas.
Now You SeeJust looking isn’t the same as really seeing
By Dawn-Michelle Baude
Millions of tourists come to Las Vegas to look — to marvel at the sensory dynamo that is the Strip. They point at the glassy tureen atop the Stratosphere, “ooh” in unison in front of the Bellagio’s undulating fountains, and gawp at scantily clad women who want both to look and to be looked at. When tourists leave, they top off their Instagram accounts and tell their friends that they’ve “seen” Las Vegas, but they haven’t. All they’ve done is look at the Strip.
To look is not the same activity as to see, although both verbs describe sensory data perceived by the eyes. Looking preserves the separation between the subject and object, so that a visitor, say, from Iqaluit, remains at a slight remove as she walks through the Flamingo poker room. She might notice the tables rimmed by players guarding their cards, perhaps even register towers of chips erected upon the felted green, but there’s nothing at stake for her. Unless she snaps a photo, only a vague impression of a room with people will dawdle in her mind, if it doesn’t vanish altogether. The visitor looked, but she didn’t see.
To see is a more substantive proposition, involving perceptions of greater specificity on the one hand and a conscious connection to the stimulus on the other. For example, seeing includes awareness of details, such as the poker dealer’s gem-encrusted fingernails, the small jade Buddha perched upon a chip tower, or the man sporting a Cardinals cap seated at the table nearest check-in. The man gazes at the visitor from Iqaluit, and they exchange a lingering smile. Now the visitor is no longer looking: She’s seeing. Her attention is happily engaged, along with her emotions. Her visual perceptions are more attentive and, consequently, more memorable. She notices the man’s Cardinals cap. She thinks the jade Buddha is cute.
Truly seeing Las Vegas is difficult because the city’s focal point, the Strip, is largely designed to be looked at rather than seen. It pulses, glows, and pixilates with the promise of an extraordinary experience just out of reach, teetering on the verge of capture. Connection to any one stimulus is abandoned for the next as a profusion of visual data inundates perception. The clamoring competition among lights, architecture, signage, décor, art, staging, traffic, panel trucks, and meandering crowds creates pitched excitement and expectation. Cash flows as visitors pay — one way or another — to move from wonder to wonder. Looking, rather than seeing, is good for business.
Seeing takes time. It takes stillness. Some philosophers contend that it takes silence, or at least quiet. Since these qualities are in scant supply on the Strip, to see the city of Las Vegas requires leaving the casinos temporarily behind. Perusing antique stores in the Arts District, contemplating installations at UNLV’s Barrick Museum, standing in line at Trader Joe’s or a noodle shop in Chinatown, taking in the view at Springs Preserve’s Divine Café — now we can begin to see some of the people who call Las Vegas home and a fraction of the places they frequent. If seeing is linked to understanding, as many philosophers over the centuries have proposed, then to stroll through Sunset Park or to visit a Clark County library is to connect candidly with the city and learn how its citizens go about their day-to-day lives.
The more carefully Las Vegas is observed, the greater the viewer’s conscious engagement, and the more the city reveals its fascinating, complex social fabric, as imperfect as it may be. To see demands a willingness to be changed by the truth of what you take in. While no investment is necessary to look at the Strip — open eyes, receive visual pleasure — actually seeing Las Vegas entails moral responsibility. The city has no shortage of ills: the barefoot young woman dressed only in a slip digging through a Maryland Parkway trashcan, the derelict buildings on Fremont smothered in garbage, the effect of housing developments on the migration of bighorn sheep in the southeast Valley. While planned neighborhoods with LEED ratings and xeriscape gardening are easy on the eyes, the parts of the city plagued by poverty, homelessness, drugs. and trafficking need to be fully seen, too. Seeing them is the first step to remedying them.
Seeing Las Vegas with greater clarity also requires contextualizing the city’s trajectory in history, from Helen Stewart’s homey ur-casino, where travelers camped and played cards 130 years ago, to the postmodern crescendo of exotic, themed casino-resorts at the turn of the last century, to the screen-clad, boxy behemoths that steal the show today. Strip-centric souvenirs of Las Vegas’ modern history populate the city’s museums, but our deepest roots are in the Mojave. The Spring Mountains ringing the Valley are a treasure trove of environmental, geological, and archeological data. Sacred canyons decorated with petroglyphs border urban sprawl, their artworks evading hikers who look but don’t see. It takes careful observation to find the traces that Native American tribes and ancient Paleo-Indians left behind centuries, if not millennia, ago. Is that pecked circle a doodle? A breast? A raindrop? An eye? To see the petroglyphs and muse on their messages is to apprehend the continuity of civilization in the valley to which we belong.
While looking is characterized by detachment, seeing is above all an emotional experience. For thousands of years, philosophers have argued that the most vital emotion of all — love — enters through the eyes, giving rise to enduring ideas such as “love at first sight” and the related notion that eyes are “windows unto the soul.” The viewer’s connection with a smiling poker player in a Cardinals cap or even a barrel cactus in full bloom arouses in her feelings of pleasure and affection. Perhaps in some cases, to really and truly see something is not only to glimpse its identity but also to discover its charm — and to fall, even briefly, in love.
From a quiet outcrop in the Spring Mountains, Las Vegas appears luminous in the early evening, the Strip sparkling against the scalloped backdrop of high-desert mountains and a depthless sky. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s beautiful.
Inhaling IntimacyNothing brings you closer — to people, to a city — than a scent
By Veronica Klash
My eyes are closed. I’m holding a sleek, smooth, heart-shaped chocolate between my thumb, index, and middle fingers. I bring it up to my nose and inhale. While filling my lungs to capacity, I do my best to resist popping the whole thing in my mouth to feel it melt on my tongue. My thumb grazes the flat bottom of the confection, releasing a tart citrus aroma that enhances the dark cocoa notes from the first breath. I imagine running through an orchard on a sunny day and plunging a skinny silver fork into a perfect slice of frothy key lime pie. My thrall is broken by the shrieking of children, and I chastise myself for choosing the wrong tasting experience at Ethel M Chocolates. The one I didn’t book pairs a wine with each chocolate.
Scent is intimacy. To know another person’s smell is to add them to an ever-changing roster of microscopic molecules that stimulate the odor receptors high in our nasal cavity. But it goes deeper than that. Think of your mother’s perfume. Or the essence that clings to your significant other’s shirt. Or the smell of your child’s skin as she sleeps. Of all our senses, scent is the most inextricable from memory. Thus it is the most emotionally resonant and subjective of senses. Smell allows us to pull into our bodies what makes another person unique.
This intimacy isn’t reserved for people alone; understanding a place also happens high in your nasal cavity. Though, as a city that chooses to be everything to everyone, there isn’t one scent that captures Las Vegas. To know, to love this city means knowing and loving myriad aromas.
The first that springs to mind is the ubiquitous casino smell, although even within this narrow category there are strata. Upon entering a certain Fremont Street casino, which will remain nameless, a friend remarked on the overwhelming cigarette scent. To her, it was an undesirable indicator of the property’s age and possible neglect. To me, after more than a decade of frequenting such older establishments for delightful dinners with my in-laws, the smell marked comfort and familiarity. In my mind, this essence (reviled by many) had been earned by the casino over years of faithfully servicing loyal customers whose waistline is full and whose hairline is not. Not an easy or glamorous feat.
Down the road, yet worlds away, Strip casinos and their scent programs tell a different story. Dina Marie Zemke, assistant professor at UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, who has researched “the relationships between the servicescape and people,” shared some insights. According to Zemke, Mandalay Bay was the first property to introduce a signature ambient scent as part of a branding effort, around 1999. The coconut and floral notes suggested not only suntan oil but a slew of positive associations.
Zemke explained that “a proper scenting program will provide a noticeable fragrance when someone enters the space, but humans should acclimate to the scent … in about 15 minutes. If you can still smell the scent after 15 minutes, the property runs the risk of creating a negative response, since even very pleasant scents become offensive if they are too strong.” This is familiar to anyone who has walked within a square mile of an Abercrombie and Fitch store.
Our city, however, offers much more than dueling casino scents. As dispensaries crop up all over town, the earthy, bittersweet aroma of pot coupled with lavender or citrus cleaners spreads throughout the valley.
Though we spend most of our traveling time ensconced in our cars’ smell bubble, we know that parts of town smell differently: Summerlin, where the air is crisp yet rife with the essence of yoga pants and scrutiny, versus Downtown, where the air is exciting but one can’t avoid clouds of cloying cotton candy vape mixed with urine essence. There’s also the unmistakable desert smell, the one that blooms most right before the rain.
Zemke highlighted a new trend in hospitality — no scent. It is my fervent hope that this trend does not catch on. I want to close my eyes and let my imagination run free. I want to close my eyes and still know exactly where I am. Because without smell, how do you arrive at intimacy? How do you get to love?
Feel the RealNothing connects you to the world like touching it
By T.R. Witcher
To think about Las Vegas and the five senses is to think, primarily, about sight. This makes sense, because the sights are so extraordinary. The Strip, our permanent World’s Fair, resplendent in its uncountable lights and retina-buzzing rivers of neon and LEDs. Or the crimson slash of Red Rock Canyon. Or the panoply of desert browns that grow dull or sparkling, washed-out or saturated, based on the time of day.
But this is shortsighted. Sight is about dreams. Spectacular, remote, always reminding us that what we see is out there, not quite a part of us. The real idea about Las Vegas is deeper. It is about touch.
Touch is the fantasy of access. Nearness. The point where dreams threaten, if only for a moment, to become real. Touch is about feeling the cards or dice in your hand, rubbing them, massaging them, hoping to impart some … intentionality to them. It’s about the varied surfaces of a restaurant that you want to run your hand across — the texture of a marble bar or wood table at a beloved restaurant or bar. It’s about the bodies you draw close to in a nightclub — the promise of what happens here stays here begins with objects of desire that you want to touch and (if you’re lucky) that want to touch you. The soft, velvet-like curtains that guard the entrance to Marquee, or the plush couches at the Chandelier Bar invite the body to enjoy the ride.
Las Vegas presents itself as both of hard surfaces — the skin of a palm tree, rugged rocks and boulders, hard soil — and soft ones. It’s a city filled with luxurious interiors, luxurious brands, luxurious bodies, all offering the promise, and occasionally, if luck or money or charisma are on your side, the reality of touch. Which is to say, reality. The Cosmopolitan and, especially, CityCenter are a buffet of tactile inputs — acrylic panels that feel like candy, reassuringly dense leather arm rests on slot machines, cool, faceted metals, slick tiles, sumptuous fabrics on the walls, imperial concrete columns, the elegant, pockmarked travertine of Henry Moore’s sculpture.
The architect Juhani Pallasmaa, in his book The Eyes of the Skin, notes that, “The skin reads the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter. The surface of an old object, polished to perfection by the tool of the craftsman and the assiduous hands of its users, seduces the stroking of the hand.”
That’s Las Vegas — the city that seduces the stroking of the hand.
Our skin is our largest organ, sensitive to sunlight, heat, motion, pain, vibration, pressure. It’s also unbelievably tactile. According to a University of California-San Diego study, our sense of touch is refined enough to feel the difference between surfaces that differ by just a single layer of molecules.
The modern world feels as though touch is not important. Our world, our technology, is about the elasticity of space and time, and therefore the malleability of human societies and human identity itself. The internet, the smartphone, TV, radio — the telecommunications revolution. We are caught between the promise of that malleability — a siren’s song of complete mastery of identity, where every social hierarchy is a presumed impediment to human happiness, where self-actualization means expressing your multivalent selves in any way, shape, or form you choose and at any moment. Author Seymour Krim called this the desire to “multiply ourselves, to integrate all the identities and action-fantasies we have experienced.”
Yet this only works (if it works at all) when we are in control; the world, with its relentless flows of capital and innovation and people, is perpetually shifting, and often we feel powerless to those forces that make and remake human lives.
It feels like media input, every screen or podcast or app, offers to dematerialize and transport us to different places and times and states of being. (This is not a new phenomenon, by the way. Marshall McLuhan, in an old Playboy interview, noted that in pre-literate societies, “the senses of touch, taste, hearing, and smell were developed, for very practical reasons, to a much higher level than the strictly visual. Into this world, the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell, installing sight at the head of the hierarchy of senses.”)
So touch is the sense that is trying to lead us back to a more embodied, holistic engagement with ourselves, each other, and the world.
Touch roots us very particularly to a place and time. It gathers in the energies of the world, a universe of fluctuating times and spaces, and concentrates them. It concentrates us, plants us, allows us to feel alive. And it is a discerning sense. You can see or hear hundreds of different inputs simultaneously. With touch, there’s only a few. It’s deliberate. It’s conscious. It’s intentional.
You can feel the luxuriousness of Crystals in its smooth, curving wood forms, or its subtly serrated titanium panels, which resemble up-close the precision of a pinstriped suit. But then take a seat at lovely little garden spot inside — the seating surface is like sitting on Scrabble tiles. The rocks and plants are lovely to behold, until you touch them and realize they’re plastic. Touch, somehow, doesn’t lie.
Touch still feels analog. For now. What made Apple (briefly) the first trillion-dollar company? No products are more pleasurable to the touch. It’s the touch that forms the bond, that weird sense of intimacy we get with the products we spend so much time lusting after.
But the touch of mass-produced objects, no matter how subtle, is a secondary concern. How do we improve our ability to touch each other? We arrange our cities largely to mitigate the chances of much interaction with other human beings — and I’m introverted enough to get this. I was at a conference the other week where we were encouraged at one point to get up and stretch. Then we were extolled to hug the person to either side of us. This last was, obviously, a joke, and so we laughed.
A friend of mine recently reminded me that the purpose of human beings is to support life. Touch is the most direct route to that end. Babies need touch to flourish. So do the rest of us. In the end, it’s touch that makes Las Vegas my home. It’s not the mythologies of risk and fantasy, failure or striking it big. Las Vegas is real to me because the people I love the most are here. The opportunity to touch them and to be touched by them.
Tasting MemoryEven the humblest foods can carry a lifetime of meaning
By Kim Foster
Mrs. Bun: What have you got, then?
Waitress: Well there’s egg and bacon; egg, sausage and bacon; egg and Spam; egg, bacon and Spam; egg, bacon, sausage and Spam; Spam, bacon, sausage and Spam; Spam, egg, Spam, Spam, bacon and Spam; Spam Spam, Spam, egg and Spam ...
— “Spam,” Monty Python, 1970
Raffi, my 7-year-old son, is lounging on the couch, playing Zelda on his Nintendo Switch, lobbing chunks of Spam into his mouth.
Raffi loves Spam. Because back when he lived with his biological parents, before they lost him to foster care and adoption, they kept him alive on it. I message Jason, his first dad.
He jokingly admits it’s all his fault. “I eat Vienna sausages and Spam out of the can all the time,” he tells me, as I watch my son in his underpants, a bare leg slung over the arm of the couch, eating straight out of the can.
Spam, the famous mystery meat, is a canned loaf of pork and ham, with a potato starch binder, a little sugar, and a preservative. It comes in many iterations — jalapeño, garlic and tocino, cheese, bacon, chorizo, light, low-salt; the list is endless. Most of us either love it or despise it. I mean, it’s pink, for God’s sake. It forces you to have an opinion. It comes out of the can in a gloriously fatty, gelatinous brick. It is salty and sweet and porky and so good fried, the edges brown and crunchy and oily. And in our house, Spam is one of my son’s connections to his bio family. To his earlier life. He wants Spam in his life the way he wants them in his life.
That’s the power of taste.
This makes evolutionary sense. Strong and emotional food memories helped us survive. Back on the savannah, sketchy food — the wrong berry, a spoiled antelope carcass — could kill you. Memories of pain and discomfort kept you from making mistakes again.
The opposite also happens. Tastes can make wonderfully positive and powerful memories. The Spam hits Raffi’s tongue, and his taste-bud cells send out messages to the insular cortex, and the smell blasts his olfactory bulb, which sits super close to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory hub, and from there, memories and taste and smell are all intertwined. One chunk of Spam, for Raffi, feels like home. And connection. It is that intense.
And Raffi is hardly alone.
Spam might be considered lowbrow. It might be mocked and disregarded by the oldest of my kids. But it is, arguably, the taste that binds our diverse Las Vegas community. Spam taste-memories cross experiences, ethnicities, race, social and economic class, and childhood upbringings. Rock climbers have it in their dusty vans at Red Rock. Indigenous people on remote rural reservations depend on Spam for those long periods between trips into town. And preppers, drawn to Spam’s wicked shelf-life, store it in Mojave bomb shelters and underground pantries. One prepper swore he’d eaten Spam 10 years past its “best by” date.
“It was fine!” he assured me.
Even the most ardent non-cooks can cook with it.
“My mother was a terrible cook,” one friend messaged me. “We actually looked forward to sliced Spam with onions. It was one of her best recipes!”
Yet it also has enough Vegas sex appeal to enjoy at a bar, playing the slots. The hip eastside Starboard Tack cocktail lounge offers a riff on the Merienda sandwich — grilled Spam, pimento cheese, and spicy adobo pickles, served on squishy Filipino rolls.
Indeed, Vegas Filipinos are big Spam fans, and have been since canned meat came to the Philippines as World War II rations. A friend talks about her mom dredging chunks of Spam in brown sugar, frying, and serving them with eggs and Japanese rice, the sweetness a contrast to the infamous saltiness of the Spam.
And Danela, the Filipino server at Pokemon: Poke Bowls & Sushi Burritos, on Valley View and Spring Mountain, has a bunch of Spam stories. We got to talking about their Spam Burrito, a mish-mosh of Japanese, Mexican, and Pacific Island influences that includes Spam, egg, crab, greens, pineapple, fried onions, and teriyaki mayo wrapped in nori.
Danela told me Spam is a luxury item in the Philippines. It’s expensive. “If you made a Spam dish for your guests,” she told me, “they would be very happy.”
In local Japanese homes, cooks make goya chanpuru, a bitter melon stir-fry well known in Okinawan cuisine. It’s simple to make — bitter melon slices, a special hard form of Okinawan tofu, Spam, and eggs. The bitter taste of the vegetable is the perfect pairing for the salty, fatty Spam. “Restaurants try to make it fancy with pork chunks,” one Henderson mom told me, “but it’s better as it’s originally intended, with Spam, because that’s how I remember it.”
Budae-jjigae, known as “army stew,” is still made in local Korean kitchens. It came into existence during the Korean war, when starving Koreans were forced to sift through American army base trash for scraps. For a budae-jjigae, think enoki mushrooms, silken tofu, spring onions, garlic, kimchi, and red pepper powder, alongside army-base cast-offs like baked beans, Spam, hot dogs, and slices of American cheese.
If you are a Korean granddaughter, you might remember the taste of budae-jjigae as simple comfort, but if you are a great-grandmother who lived in Korea during the war, the taste-memory might be one of fear and deprivation. Same dish, powerfully different memory-evoking tastes.
At Roy Choi’s Best Friend at Park MGM, that plays out in real-time. Jake Leslie, Best Friend’s GM, explains that when large Korean families eat itaewon, Choi’s take on buddae-jjigae, they often have different experiences along generational lines. Younger Koreans love the thick, stewy mix of greens, corned beef hash, sausage, fish cakes, Spam, lil’ smokies, grocery store ramen, and herbs in a scorching but comforting tomato-based sauce. But older Koreans remember it as soup, not stew. Ingredients cooked in water or broth. Meager, not hearty. Taste-memory is so critical to how we experience food.
Buddae-jjigae is also an excellent example of how cooking food can be a transgressive and revolutionary act. A cook can take food borne of war and hardship, poverty, and struggle, reinvent it, raise it up, and turn it into something that reflects the cook and the eater. Every happy family meal with Spam redefines it and creates new generations of taste-memories. As I write this, I realize Spam is a lot like Vegas itself — born of hardship and struggle and made into something beautiful, loved by many, looked down on by snobs, misunderstood by naysayers.
Perhaps it’s Hawaiians who have the most enduring taste-memories of Spam, and have done some of the most beautiful and defiant things with it. Hawaiian restaurants offer iconic dishes like musubi, a spin on onigiri that puts a cooked slice of Spam on rice, held together with a piece of nori.
You can order your Spam Musubi at a casino restaurant, like Aloha Specialties in the California, or a smaller, no-frills eatery like Island Style on Sahara, or with kimchi at Pacific Island Taste on Charleston. There is Loco Moco, rice and Spam smothered in brown gravy, topped with a runny fried egg, at Born and Raised. There’s the Green Eggs and Spam at Served in Henderson, eggs fried in green Thai butter and grilled Spam with garlic rice. And there’s Hawaiian-inspired Spam in coffee shops like Vesta, with its Hawaiian Benedict Sandwich: a runny egg, cheddar, and Spam topped with Sriracha hollandaise; and the Mahalo Special at PublicUs, two farm eggs over Portuguese Sausage Spam with rice and house-made kimchi.
Here on the Ninth Island, Spam brings a special taste memory. As with my son, Raffi, it’s of a first home. “OMG! Where do I start?” asks local artist Eddie Canumay. “Some people think Hawaii’s Spam obsession is a joke. But it’s for real.”
Eddie talked about Spam saimin, a Spam-laden noodle soup that is even on some Hawaiian McDonald’s menus, as well as fried-Spam sandwiches, and the one dish that reminds him of home more than any other — diced Spam, fried with canned peas and carrots, in tomato sauce, and served over Japanese white rice. His father made this dish for him his whole life, Eddie tells me, mixing talk of food with memories of growing up and island life, all inseparable “Spam,” he says, “reminds me of home and my childhood.”