Cafe Society

SPAM on wry

Once again, SPAM -- everyone's favorite potted meat product -- is in the news. And this time, there's a Colorado hook: Ron Pearman of Colorado Springs won the grand prize in the Great American SPAM Championship. (Read Melanie Asmar's interview with the champ here.)  The contest, held at state and county fairs all over this great nation, drew hundreds of entries, all from people with a deep and abiding love of SPAM, but Pearman won out. He beat all comers. He beat the field.

And he did it with mini SPAM nacho burgers.

Did you just throw up in your mouth a little? That's okay. Take a minute to compose yourselves.

I understand the reaction. Really, I do. But I am not here to mock SPAM. I am here to profess my adoration for said product and to admit, en clair, to being a fan. I have eaten SPAM and enjoyed it.  I have cooked with SPAM myself. I have gone out of my way to buy SPAM when the sudden and inexplicable craving for pink meat has overtaken me, and have paid good money for SPAM in restaurants.

Granted, they were Hawaiian restaurants, mostly, but the good people of Hawaii, Key West, the Caribbean and other out-of-the-way places that occasionally experience months of isolation, as is inevitable when you are a little island adrift on the big water, have become like historic repositories of lore, fixated on the use of such long-haul provisions as SPAM, condensed milk, Vienna sausages and the like.

That key lime pie you enjoy at the end of a long meal? That was a desperation dessert, invented by wise bakers in the Keys who sometimes found themselves with nothing to cook with but the cans of milk in their pantries and the limes falling from the trees.  And SPAM musubi--the second-greatest invention of Hawaiian cooks, right after the plate lunch -- came about the same way. Hawaiians love sushi. Hawaiians love pork.  Hawaiians (apparently) love things that come in cans. So why not make a futomaki roll out of rice and nori and canned pork?  Looking back now, it all seems so obvious...

Pearman's recipe goes a little something like this: Take a can of SPAM, open it (am I the only one out there who misses the little key that used to come glued to the top of every can?), slice the meat into thick, quivering slabs of gelatinous goodness, grill as you would a hamburger patty, then top with a scratch mix of cheese, guacamole, salsa and jalapenos and mount the whole mess on a Hawaiian sweet roll.

Then eat.

Then die happy.

I think the thing that has most people freaked out is the "Hawaiian sweet roll," because most people visualize some kind of breakfast pastry. But not here. One of the other great creations with the word "Hawaiian" attached to its name is a kind of sandwich roll called a Hawaiian -- normally seen in slider-size. I don't know why it's called a Hawaiian roll; I don't know if it was invented in Hawaii or what, because there seems to be a suspicious lack of history about the rolls kicking around the internets. But I do know that they are delicious--pillowy-soft and just slightly sweet, tough enough to hold a big wad of SPAM without falling to pieces, and dense enough to soak up those potted meat drippings like a sponge.

Oh, and another thing about Hawaii? The Big Island is where Pearman got his inspiration for the SPAM burger.  He already knew from SPAM because he was a hunter who grew up in the South and ate it while out in the boonies, but then he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Hawaii, thereby making him a triple-threat: a SPAM fan who'd been eating it for years, doing time in the center of the SPAM universe and the place where Hawaiian rolls were invented (presumably). Then he came to Colorado and got a taste of guac and salsa. The rest, as they say, is history.

Pearman took home $3,000 for his win. And reading about his victory got me all juiced up over collecting a little SPAM history. For example, did you know that six billion cans of SPAM have been sold since it was invented in 1937?  Yeah, and rumors have as many as seven of those cans actually being consumed.

Joking! The real number, according to SPAM experts, is probably closer to 700. Though it's a hard stat to track, since most of those cans have been eaten by Hawaiians and Hawaiians are a famously secretive people who mostly use cans of SPAM as a form of currency, trading them for bags of Doritos and six-packs of Schlitz or big bowls of poi, which they use to power their magical flying canoes.

According to the SPAM website, because this meat product comes pre-cooked, it is perfectly safe to eat SPAM with a spoon right out of the can. According to other reputable websites, it is also "perfectly safe" to wear a top-hat made entirely out of angry cats and attempt human flight by jumping off your roof with nothing but a bedsheet tied around your neck as a cape. I plan on trying all three of these things as soon as I can find some cats, anger them, and then get into a building high enough to leap from. I am confident that everything will turn out all right.

Also according the the SPAM website, SPAM will last forever. Provided the can remains sealed and no oxygen is allowed to get to the pork within, SPAM is functionally immortal. They call it "meat with a pause button," which has got to be one of the best marketting slogans I have ever heard.

Finally, SPAM itself was named by some guy named Ken in 1930-something. The way I understand the story, SPAM's inventor, Jay Hormel, was displeased with the way his canned pig was selling under its original name: Hormel's Super-Fantastic Experimental Immortal Meat Product. Thus, he decided to hold a contest, wherein a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters would be locked in a room, amply supplied with cigarettes and whiskey, and ordered to type until they came up with a better name. The winning monkey wouldn't be used in Hormel's newest product, Chimplettes (thin slices of monkey loin, fried and bagged like potato chips--only made out of monkey!), but would instead live a life of luxury as a pampered spokes-monkey. 

As things turned out, none of the monkeys came up with anything even remotely usable (come to find, drunk monkeys do not, contrary to popular belief, write good advertising copy), and the honor of re-naming Hormel's product went to Ken -- a junior monkey-keeper at the Hormel packing plant in Fremont, Nebraska. 

Oddly, SPAM does not mean "Spiced Ham," as most people think. SPAM was actually Ken's middle name.  He sold it to Hormel for $100 and all the Chimplettes he could eat--quite a payday for a junior monkey-keeper in 1930s Nebraska.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan