Alimentary, My Dear
SPAM®—The Meat We Hate to Love
By Tamia Nelson
But first, here's breaking news from the In the Same Boat Department of Corrections… A keen-eyed reader—New Yorker Alan Mapes, wearing his "naturalist's hat"—has caught me with my field guides down. The bur-headed seed case that I identified as a beechnut in a recent column is, in fact, a common burdock. "How ignomonious," as a certain fictional shop assistant was wont to say in similarly embarrassing circumstances. In any event, I've now corrected my errant copy, and to make sure that nothing of this sort happens again, I've also signed up for a Wild Foods Identification course offered by a panel of local experts: chipmunks, chickadees, and jays. It's bound to be a learning experience. Thanks for the heads-up, Alan!
March 17, 2009
SPAM®. It just don't get no respect. Once it was a wartime staple and a welcome luxury in years when many meals were meatless, but now its stock has fallen. Health advocates decry its high sodium and fat content, not to mention the nitrites used in processing. Worse yet, it's become a stock joke. "Right Stuff" test pilot Chuck Yeager once dismissed the Mercury astronauts as "SPAM in a can." (Flying skills weren't an important part of the astronaut selection process.) And who can forget Monty Python's SPAM skit, often cited as the origin of the pejorative label now universally applied to unwanted and offensive e-mail? No one I know.
That's a lot of baggage to haul around, I admit. But maybe it's time to take a second look at SPAM. It may not rank high on the list of Foodie faves, but it has a loyal following, nonetheless. And it's got history on its side, too. As "Hormel Spiced Ham" it kept millions of folks from missing meals during the Depression. A little while later, answering to the (then) new name of SPAM, it joined up to feed the troops during World War II. It also came to the rescue of the special relationship, helping Brits cope with wartime rationing—and the grim, almost meatless years that followed the peace. SPAM played a vital part in my own history, as well. When I was a kid, it was often on the family menu: fried by the slice at breakfast, in sandwiches for lunch, and diced with potatoes for supper. My maternal grandfather kept a whole pantry shelf stocked with tins of the stuff. The Depression had left its mark on him. He remembered what it was like to go hungry, and he wasn't about to let it happen again. My other grandfather, the sometime Adirondack guide who helped to nurture my love of wild places, was also a SPAM fan. He always made sure he had a can in his pack basket when he headed out into the backcountry. He knew that, no matter how skilled the angler, there were bound to be days when the fish wouldn't bite. But the fisherman still had to eat.
Of course, our ideas about good nutrition have changed over the years. During the Depression, it was enough to have something—anything—in your stomach. Now we demand much more from our meals. We're told that we should shun salt, animal fats, and nitrites, and mostly we do. (Well, some of us do, at any rate. At least some of the time.) Yet SPAM remains a favorite. Hormel Foods claims that 90 million cans are sold each and every year in the United States alone, and they should know. So strong is SPAM's allure that some new converts to vegetarianism spend long hours trying to concoct a passable stand-in for this now out-of-bounds treat. Or so I've heard. I've yet to sample any of these surrogates in the flesh(less), though.
SPAM has endeared itself to canoeists and kayakers, too. And why not? Its keeping qualities are legendary, and notwithstanding the well-intentioned advice of the experts, fat and salt each have a place in the active paddler's diet. Ed Gillet, whose 2000-mile-plus solo kayak jaunt from Monterey to Maui is certainly noteworthy, ran short of food before he reached his destination. He was later heard to lament that he hadn't filled his boat with SPAM before leaving. But you don't have to cross an ocean to crave the taste of Hormel's most famous product. Not too long ago I stumbled on a forum post in which the writer was moved to observe, "I know Tamia Nelson wouldn't agree…, but I just have to have SPAM when I'm camping."
Not so fast, fella! Tamia's not so easily pigeon-holed. In fact, I'd be the last person to deny…
SPAM's Place in the Backcountry
Yes, it's true that SPAM is no longer a mainstay of my paddling menu. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate its virtues. And the list of ingredients, while not exactly a model of dietary correctness, is certainly no worse than that of many other processed foods. There's even something called "SPAM Lite" now. OK. "Lite" may be a bit misleading. With nearly two-thirds of its calories in the form of fat, it's clear that there's a little poetic license at work on the label. It's a safe bet that SPAM—even Lite SPAM—isn't going to find its way into the stomachs of many dieters or vegetarians. Yet that's not what SPAM's about. No way. It's about satisfying the inner paddler's need for concentrated calories in reasonably palatable form. And what's wrong with that? In fact, when Hormel Foods speaks of the…
"The Miracle Meat of a Million Uses"
It's not too much of a stretch. Thumb through any good collection of cookbooks or troll a search string in the deep waters of the Web, and you'll find an astonishing number of recipes that call for SPAM. In some of these it's the star. In others, it's only a bit player. No matter. Either way, it's in the cast, and that's what counts. SPAM's a versatile actor with an extraordinary range and great staying power. Carry SPAM in cans, or pick up some shelf-stable single-slice packets. Either way, it's already cooked, so SPAM can be eaten cold, right out of the can or packet. That's why it makes a good emergency ration for those times when it's just not practical—or even possible—to stop for a meal.
Want something a little more elaborate? No problem. Here are a few suggestions pulled from my camp recipe file:
Breakfasting with SPAM Use SPAM just as you would bacon or ham. Fry up a slice and top with a fried egg. (There's no need to use oil. SPAM has plenty of fat on its own.) Or chop some SPAM, brown it in a skillet, and stir it into a mess of hash browns prepared from a boxed mix. Still hungry? Pancakes and fried SPAM will fill any empty corners. Or make up a pot of cornmeal mush and serve with a fried SPAM slice. You say you don't like mush? You'd rather have oatmeal? Then dice SPAM right into the oatmeal as it cooks.
SPAM in the Hand SPAM sandwiches (SPAMwiches?) can be eaten at any time of day or night. You can have them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner—or any time in between. For a classic SPAMwich, fry slices till they start to crisp and then serve on sliced white bread spread with mustard. In a hurry? Don't bother to cook the SPAM. Or maybe you'd like to hedge your bets and court your cardiologist's grudging assent. If so, just substitute whole wheat bread for white, and add a garnish of lettuce or spinach.
SPAMwich builders don't have to limit themselves to soft, sliced bread, of course. You can tuck hunks of SPAM into pita pockets or fold them into fresh-baked flatbread, if you want. Or roll strips of SPAM up in tortillas. Or slice a bagel crosswise and sandwich a slab of SPAM between the halves. In short, you can choose any kind of bread you want. Just use your loaf, as the Brits would say, and add a garnish to round things off: a gherkin or two, something leafy and green, some sliced or dried tomatoes, a slice of onion, some cheese, even a dollop of marmalade. Marmalade?! Yep. Fruit complements ham, and SPAM is ham, at least in part.
SPAM for Supper Here, too, the possibilities are legion. Soup? Sure. Cube SPAM and simmer it with whatever soup suits your fancy. Like ham, SPAM goes well in bean soup and pea soup, but it also tastes great in minestrone or potato soup. For a quick, hot meal at the end of a long day, boil water in your storm kettle and mix up an instant dried soup, either store-bought or home-made. Then add diced SPAM to the soup just before serving.
Or maybe you want something more substantial. Piece of cake! Flesh out meatless stews or other one-pot meals with chunks of SPAM, or fry cubed or sliced SPAM in a pot till it's crispy around the edges. Then add canned baked beans or chili. Now heat and serve, topping your meal off with grated cheddar.
Do you fancy SPAM as the main attraction? Nothing could be simpler. Cut a thick slice into bite-sized pieces and thread onto skewers, alternating with pineapple chunks, quartered onions, and whole mushrooms. Now heat over an open fire, just as you would kebabs and satays. (A marmalade or duck sauce marinade won't go amiss, either.) Once your SPAM satays are ready, serve them up on a bed of rice. Or is a wood fire out of the question? Then fry cubes of SPAM in a skillet on your stove, along with some onions. When the onions are cooked through, pour in a small can of peaches with all the juice. Simmer until the peaches are hot and the sauce has thickened. Serve with rice.
As you can see, SPAM may indeed have a million possible uses. And while I draw the line at SPAM fritters, SPAM Wellington, and SPAM sushi, there's no reason why you have to follow my lead. In matters of taste, there are no hard and fast rules.
Well, maybe there's one: SPAM is undoubtedly a taste that a whole lot of folks have acquired. In fact, SPAM has proven so successful over the years that it's given rise to a few of examples of…
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
And each of these has a loyal following of its own. So if you're a fan of Armour's Treet®, say, please don't take me to task for SPAMming. Just send me any recipes you want to share, and I'll be happy to showcase your favorites in a future column. I can't say fairer than that, can I?