Not appetizing, but funny. I’m sure some pioneer hackers thought they were being oh, so funny in the early days of computer bulletin boards and chat rooms when they would flood a site with quotes from the Python Spam gag, filling the screens of chat rooms with SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM. And thus was born the age of spamming. You’ve got mail!
So there is Spam (electronic) and Spam (food) as Wikipedia classifies them and the difference is fairly clear. But what could be in that rectangular blue can to bring about such a nasty connotation? A rainbow of food colorings, perhaps? Preservatives (no, doubt, right?), not to mention all sorts of chemical substitutues for real nutrients and maybe some genetically engineered mystery meat? How about pork, ham, sugar, salt, water, potato starch and that old deli-meat stand-by sodium nitrite? In other words, it’s basically old-fashioned sausage technology wrapped in a can instead of the traditional casing of intestines. Unless you have a strong hankering for innards, you probably wouldn’t mind losing the intestines in favor of the can, hmmm?
Although it sounds like generic sausage stuffing, it is not. Spam is not derived from an ancient family recipe, nor did it cross the Atlantic or Pacific (or the Arctic Ocean for that matter) with a wave of immigrants. Spam is produced by Hormel Foods, LLC. and no one else. And does Hormel revel in the notoriety of their SPAM®? Check out www.spam.com for the answer.
At first look, it would seem that Spam is a great corporate success story despite of, or because of the notoriety. Six billion cans sold since 1937, going on seven billion soon; 90 million cans sold in America alone per year. Proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity. There are three yearly Spam Festivals: SpamJam at Hormel’s Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota; SpamArama in Austin, Texas; and the Waikiki SpamJam in Hawaii.
What I find even more fascinating is how Spam has found its way into the folklore in some places. Great Britain, China, South Korea and Hawaii are large consumers of Spam. But as you can tell from the Python sketch, Spam has taken on a real presence in the local culture. In England you can order Spam fritters in the fish and chip shops. Walk into any ABC store in Hawaii and you are bound to see cellophane-wrapped Spam musubi (recipe below) available for a quick snack. In Hawaii, you will find Spam on the menu in places as divers as McDonald’s and Sam Choy’s Breakfast, Lunch and Crab. Spam is as much a part of Hawaiian cuisine as pineapple or mahi mahi. Hawaiian comedian Frank De Lima’s song Spam Musubi sung to the music of the Village People’s YMCA is one of funniest song parodies I have ever heard. There are historical reasons why Spam inserted itself in the culture of various places. The opportune timing of its introduction, 1937, made it a staple in many places where fresh meat was rare during WWII. But there’s one principle reason that can’t be overlooked: it’s versatile and can be made to taste really, really good. Think “bacon,” not so much as a flavor comparison but as something you can add to lots of different dishes to enhance or kick-up the flavor. Among the recipes you can find online: Spam Pizza, Spam Stroganoff, Spamadillas, Spam Fried Rice, Spam Chili, Spam Quiche, Spam Stuffed Potatoes Florentine, Spamburgers, Spam and Stuffing, Spam Gyros, Spam and Eggs and the unbeatable Spam Musubi.
The SpamArama in Austin, TX, April 7, is probably the biggest of the Spam Festivals and also the oldest celebrating their 29th year. They will have a cook-off, arts & crafts exhibits, live music (including the SowPremes), and Spamalympics with a Spam Disc Shoot, Spam Can Relay and, of course, a Spamburger Eating Contest because after all this is happening in Texas.
This year’s Waikiki Spam Jam on April 28 is their 5th annual festival. They will also have local bands for entertainment, food booths, local arts and crafts and they will hold a Mr. or Ms. Spam contest with the award going to “the most Spam-crazed fan in Hawaii.” I’m sure the competition will be stiff.
If I’ve gotten you curious and you’re feeling brave enough to walk down the supermarket aisle and pick up a can of Spam, you are going to need a little guidance. First, leave the Turkey Spam for another time, don’t make it your first taste of Spam. In fact, leave all the fancy alternatives (Garlic Spam, Hickory Smoke Spam, Spam with Bacon, Spam with Cheese) for later. However, I can confirm that Spam Lite (50% less fat) is fine if you are really that concerned about pork fat. Yes, Spam is fully cooked so that you can theoretically pop open the can on the way home and spoon it out for a quick snack. Please avoid the temptation. Cook it, it’ll taste better.
For starters you might want to have it with eggs for breakfast. Lop off a ¼ inch slice and fry it up nice and brown on both sides. Before frying, you can marinate it in soy sauce, or maybe a molasses or maple-based marinade. Or, instead of eggs, insert strips of fried Spam with cheese into a tortilla for Quesadillas. Alternately, you can dice up the Spam, add some vegetables and mix it into a fried rice.
For me, the ultimate is Spam Musubi. The ideal tool for making musubi is an onigiri maker. Any ABC store in Hawaii will have them for sale. If you will not be visiting the islands in the near future, the next best place to look for an onigiri maker would be in Little Tokyo or an Asian grocery store. The onigiri maker is a hollow mold shaped in a perfect Spam rectangle with a press to tamp down the rice. Its purpose is to shape the ball of rice for musubi into a perfect pillow for your Spam. Lacking an onigiri maker you could use an empty Spam can which is also shaped in a perfect Spam rectangle. You may even be lucky enough to find one of the rare 7oz cans of Spam, an ideal substitute for the more professional looking onigiri maker, though you will have to improvise on the press portion of the kit. If you are the adventurous type, you may want to form the rice by hand. This is no easy task and is not for the faint of heart.
Aside for the onigiri maker, the only other tools you need are a frying pan, spatula, rice cooker and a knife.
Spam (¼ inch slices)
Rice (Calrose or other similar variety)
Use Japanese-style rice, Uncle Ben’s will not hold together. The rice has to stick together like the kind you get with sushi. You can make the rice extra yummy by seasoning it with furukake, a sesame and seaweed seasoning. Marinate the Spam in soy sauce before frying it. Dip the onigiri maker in water to keep the rice from sticking to it. Place a wide strip of nori (shiny side out) under the onigiri maker. Spoon some of the cooked rice into the origiri maker and press it down firmly so you have a flat surface on top. Lay a slice of Spam on top of the rice and slide the onigiri maker up over the rice and Spam. Wrap the nori over the top, overlapping both ends to make a closed circle and wet the outer end to make it stick and form a seal.
If you are going to wrap these up for portability, placing the cellophane below the nori at the beginning of the process will make it easier to wrap.
Musubi: simple, easy and portable. Make a bunch of musubi, wrap them each individually. You can stick them in you pocket and have them for breakfast during your morning commute on the bus, or if you’re driving and stopped at a light or on the 405 freeway. Do NOT try to eat musubi while you are driving in moving traffic. It’s worse than being on a cell phone and there is no hands-free option for Spam Musubi.
By the way, the makers of Spam claim that the airtight can of Spam has a virtually infinite shelf life. So if you have a time capsule handy, I would strongly encourage you to donate a can of Spam to the future. How’s that for a testament to our times?
Monty Python skit (including streaming audio): www.detritus.org/spam/skit.html
Special edition spam: media.hormel.com/templates/knowledge/knowledge.asp?catitemid=2&id=268
When not dining in exotic locales, Michael Macheret forages closer to home in the South Bay regions near Los Angeles.