2009 comebacks: Spam

SpamFor many people, Spam is a culinary joke, the ultimate example of cheap, dead-end cuisine. Perhaps its most famous pop-culture moment came in a Monty Python skit, in which every menu item in a cruddy, crowded cafeteria came with a side order of the ubiquitous pink product. Arguably, however, it has gained even greater renown as a broad term for unsolicited e-mail. Then again, according to some sources, internet spam was named for the Monty Python skit, and thus, indirectly, for the famed food.

Spam doesn't get much respect, either as a food, a phenomenon, or even as a skit (personally, I prefer the Bruces sketch). It is generally regarded as representing the worst in processed, fake meat, somewhere below canned chili, hot dogs, and corned beef hash on the culinary hierarchy. In fact, when I told my daughter's day care provider that I was going to try Spam for the first time, she scrunched up her face and declared that the famed pink meat product was "desperation food."

In truth, however, Spam has a long and proud history. For example, it was one of the few meat products that were generally available in the United Kingdom during World War II. Thus, the famed Spam sketch was born out of the fact that the meat was, literally, a life saver for the besieged island country. Spam made its way into the Hawaiian diet at the same time and for much the same reasons. It is still among the most popular foods in the island state, where per capita Spam consumption hovers around six cans a year.

Over the past few months, with the economy exploring its capacity for self-destruction, Spam has gained new relevance. As a cheap substitute for more expensive ham and beef cuts, it has had a sort of renaissance, with growing sales and increased cultural consideration. In fact, Time magazine recently ran an article in which it asked several prominent chefs to develop recipes that used the canned meat. Their results look very interesting.

It's also worth noting that the meat, which was once infamous for its collection of artificial ingredients, seems downright pure by today's food-adulteration standards. Comprised of pork shoulder, ham, water, sugar, salt, sodium nitrite, and potato starch, it sports nary a molecule of high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oil, carageenan, or any of the other pseudo-ingredients that seem to clog up every processed food these days.

My introduction to Spam came courtesy of Spam musubi, a Hawaiian snack food that combines the American processed meat with Japanese sushi preparation and teriyaki flavorings. The recipe that I followed came from this site, which also has a recipe for Monty Python's distinctive "Lobster Thermidore aux Crevettes with Mornay Sauce, Truffle Pate, Brandy, Fried Egg and Spam." While I'm not in a hurry to try the lobster recipe, I have to admit that the musubi was quite tasty. Salty-sweet and tangy, with a nice combination of textures, it was not at all the slimy mess that I expected. In fact, while future experiments will probably involve reduced-sodium Spam Lite, I can guarantee that I will be visiting the world of Spam again!

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