The magical, mystical world of SPAM

When one hears the term "mystery meat," it's hard not to think of Spam. After all, although the ingredients -- pork shoulder, ham, water, sugar, salt, sodium nitrite, and potato starch -- are clearly marked on every package, there still remains a question about its origins. Maybe it's the mysterious can, with its old-fashioned illustrations and rounded corners, or maybe its just the fact that the meat doesn't really look like anything that occurs in nature; regardless, Spam carries with it a tinge of strangeness, a touch of enigma.

One of the greatest mysteries in this most mysterious of meats lies in the question of who actually eats it. While Whole Foods seems notably lacking Spam, most grocery stores stock huge piles of the stuff. What's more, Spam cans always seem fresh, undented, and almost pristine, which would suggest that it doesn't spend much time in the store. Recent news reports back this observation up.

While Spam is popular across the United States, it is almost legendary in Hawaii, where every man, woman, and child consumes, on average, six cans a year. While most pundits claim that the canned snack gained popularity during World War II, when U.S. soldiers gave it to natives, Christopher Moore cites a more entertaining explanation. In Island of the Sequined Love-Nun, he claims that Spam actually is code for "Shaped Protein Approximating Man," and that it was used to wean cannibals off of long pork.

Admittedly, Hawaii was never known for cannibalism, but the same cannot be said for the rest of Polynesia, where Spam enjoys amazing popularity.

In spite of growing up in the darkest recesses of suburbia and being a Boy Scout for several years, I managed to make it well into my thirties without ever tasting Spam. Recently, however, amid Time magazine articles about gourmet Spam recipes and the growing popularity of the famed "spiced ham," I decided that the time had come to give it a shot. After all, with millions of recession-beset diners lining up to buy the stuff, it was clear that Spam contained a new cultural relevance and, as a personal-finance writer, it is my job to explore these trends. Besides, I was kind of fascinated by the stuff.

As my entry point into the world of Spam cuisine, I chose to try Spam Musubi, a popular Hawaiian street snack. Basically resembling a huge slab of Spam sushi, Musubi pairs a marinated, grilled slice of the pink stuff with a slab of rice, wraps the whole bundle in a strip of seaweed and serves it with a sweet dipping sauce. The final effect is somewhat surreal, and had my wife collapsing in a fit of giggles. On the other hand, she really seemed to love the dish, her only complaint being that it was way too salty.

Although I'm never going to be a huge Spam fan, I have to admit that my first run-in with it was actually pretty good. Contrary to my expectations, the texture wasn't slimy at all; in fact, it had a light, almost whipped consistency that I usually associate with pate. The flavor was similarly unoffensive: basically, it tasted slightly of ham and largely of salt. It grilled up nicely, with a firm mouthfeel that was surprisingly comforting. Overall, I can see why so many chefs are becoming fascinated with it and why so many consumers are buying it in bulk. Now for Spamghetti Carbonara...

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. His wife is part Hawaiian, a fact that may have significant relevance for her Spam appreciation.
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