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Cooking on Guam: When a Tropical Paradise is a Food Desert

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Close your eyes and imagine yourself on a beautiful tropical island in the middle of the Pacific. Palm trees bend and sway with the weight of fresh coconuts, colorful reef fish swim in water so blue you strain to distinguish between sea and sky. It's every image of paradise Hollywood has ever sold, and you're there, toes deep in satiny sand.

Now wake up, buttercup, because it's time to make dinner.

When my husband accepted a job on the U.S. territory of Guam, it was easy to picture the positives. Yes, it's gorgeous, and yes, the locals are warm and welcoming. But grocery shopping? That’s a whole different kettle of (probably flash-frozen) fish. In this era of "locavore" everything, I’ve quickly learned what it's like to live on a food desert island, a place where well over 90% of the food we can buy has been shipped at great cost halfway around the world—and where there are plenty of fairly common ingredients we simply can’t find.

Take my favorite recipe for meatballs with pappardelle, which starts off with a blend of ground beef, pork, and veal. Veal is unavailable, so I use half beef, half pork instead. Next, I need fresh breadcrumbs, milk, and eggs, to bind the meat together. I can’t buy a crusty baguette (my usual preference), so the breadcrumbs I use end up coming from my kids’ sandwich bread.

Milk is easy to find, though expensive: I spend about 20% of my weekly grocery bill on three gallons . Shipping any kind of food around the world isn’t cheap. When fresh berries appear (and aren’t moldy) a pint can run over $8. There were a few weeks at the end of 2015 when bagged lettuce cost $11, which temporarily made salads a non-starter for my family of five. I’m lucky, though, because I have access to military commissaries—if I shopped at local stores, prices would run up to 40% higher for “core items.”

And the eggs I’m looking for? Those often reach the shelves months after they’re laid. After searching for the freshest carton, I bought a dozen in mid-February that had been packed in November.

So, I’ve got my meat and my binder, but now I need seasoning. Onions and garlic are often moldy by the time they reach us, and shallots are old and dried out. I’d like to throw a handful of freshly grated authentic Parmesan in there, too, but I can only buy “parmesan” cheese on the island, and honestly, I’d rather skip it.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say I do find good onions and that there’s still some cheese left over from my last trip to the U.S. or Asia. (Yes, I load my suitcase up with cheese. When I travel, I find myself leaving most of my suitcase empty for the groceries I’m planning to bring back. Sometimes that translates into “nice to haves,” like Trader Joe’s aioli mustard (I’m addicted) and gummy tummies for the kids. Sometimes it’s cheese, country ham, aged balsamic vinegar, double zero flour, and stone-ground grits.)

Even if I make all of those adjustments to the meatballs themselves, the fresh egg pasta I love is unavailable, and by now I’m too discouraged and fed up to make my own. Because at this point, I’m not really making my favorite meatballs with pappardelle anymore.

And a vegetable for the side? When I make a grocery list, I don’t even include produce. It’s too frustrating; better to show up and buy whatever looks best, even if that means I can’t make the thing I’m craving until the next ship pulls in.

Rao's Meatballs
Rao's Meatballs

The compromises I must make in terms of availability, price, freshness, and quality in order to source almost every ingredient of a not-very-complicated recipe render what used to be a simple comfort food neither simple nor comforting. Some of my favorite dishes (fresh guacamole or redeye gravy for Sunday biscuits) aren’t possible here, and can’t be faked.

Is Guam truly a food desert? Not technically. We always have access to food—even produce, if you’re willing to buy frozen when the fresh options run out or go bad. Happily, the island got its first CSA (through a co-op of local farmers) about six months ago and the farmers' market seems to be slowly but surely expanding. There are a limited number of local items sporadically available—mostly lettuces, gourds, bananas, long beans, eggplant, and a citrus called calamansi—and I’m hopeful that demand will push local farmers to expand their efforts. I read recently that the commissaries here purchase only about 1% of the food they sell from local sources, but we are hungry for better, fresher options.

Still, it’s hard to reconcile the tropical beauty around me—the abundance of sunlight and jungle and ocean—with moments like the one today, when I heard a local KFC ad promoting “the biggest variety of seafood on Guam.”