Though much maligned, SPAM merits respect

Published 5:44 pm Saturday, October 17, 2009

Wandering through the grocery store the other day, I happened to spot something to which I’d given absolutely no thought in a long, long time. Certainly it had not graced my cabinets in many, many months, maybe even years. (I’ve now remedied that.)

It’s SPAM.

SPAM is much maligned – you’ve heard people call it “mystery meat” or “Something Posing As Meat” – and it probably is more a “guy food,” kind of like Vienna sausages.

I think my first acquaintance with either of those staples was in a deer camp or sitting on the tailgate of a pickup parked on a dirt road back up in the woods somewhere. Accompanying courses would have included Saltine crackers and cheese.

I have always considered SPAM a cool-weather food. If you’re in a hurry, it’s fine cold, on a sandwich with lots of mayonnaise.

But it is best fried.

My friend Chef Jen Hodge, who owns and operates The Commons Bed & Breakfast and Wine Bistro in Murfreesboro, probably would say I sauté it rather than fry it, but that’s a pretty fancy way to describe scorching pressed meat in a cast iron skillet.

What you do is (and, Jen, feel free to use this recipe if you wish; unlike my chile recipe you keep trying to emulate, this one is not a secret) slice the SPAM vertically into patties, then sear them in a dry frying pan. You should cook it well done, letting it sizzle and pop until it just starts to scorch and stick to the pan. Then you scrape out the meat crumbs and sprinkle them over the patties sort of as a garnish. It’s all in the presentation, don’t you know?

The finished patties are then carefully arranged on white bread, and slathered liberally with the afore mentioned mayonnaise. Cheese is optional, but adds a lot. You should serve Fritos on the side and there should be Oreos for dessert.

If you are among those who look down on SPAM, you are out of line or misinformed or both. (Hormel’s trademark, by the way, requires that the name be spelled with all capital letters.)

Hormel, the company that makes SPAM, has sold more than 7 billion – that’s billion with a “B” – cans of SPAM so far, and there are SPAM cookoffs at more than 40 regional and state fairs at last count. SPAM is sold in 41 countries worldwide, and the largest consumers are the United States, the United Kingdom and South Korea.

And SPAM is a worldwide phenomenon. First appearing in 1937, it was an important source of protein for the Allies in World War II. In 1942, legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow reported: “This is London. Although the Christmas table will not be lavish, there will be SPAM luncheon meat for everyone.”

And SPAM has quite a cult following. It has its own fan club and web site. You can even order SPAM clothing, ranging from a SPAM denim shirt to a SPAM necktie to a SPAM cap (available in bright SPAM yellow or camouflage).

You can also get SPAM wine charms, but I’m not sure which wines go best with SPAM, nor can I see a wine glass coordinating well with the paper plates on which most SPAM is served.

The SPAM web site offers lots of fancy recipes for the chopped-pork-in-gelatin product, ranging from breakfast SPAM cakes to Cantonese sweet-and-sour SPAM to “SPAMito green chili stew.”

All of that seems to me like going a little overboard. I believe we should just stick with the fried SPAM sandwich described above.

After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

David Sullens is president of Roanoke-Chowan Publications LLC and publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and the Gates County Index.