Spam: It's not just for inboxes anymore

Just in time for the recession, let's take a look at all the wondrous ways to eat Spam

Another point the museum misses is an explanation of exactly how and when Spam transitioned from pure caloric energy to cultural kitsch, or pop food. And how a generation of young people will clad itself in ironic Spam flip-flops, yet won't dare let the stuff touch their lips.

After I finished touring the museum, I bought every type of Spam the gift shop sold and invited a few friends over for dinner. A few people responded enthusiastically ("Call me Caucasian garbage if you want, but I actually like Spam. I used to eat it all the time as a kid"), but most shamefully admitted they'd never tried the product ("I feel like a bad Minnesotan for asking this, but has anybody ever actually eaten Spam?"). One friend flat-out refused to attend. "It tastes like arm," he said.

Those who were familiar with the holy trinity of salt, fat, and sugar knew that it's best prepared simply: sliced and fried, served on buttered toast. But hundreds of Spam recipes have been developed over the years, some as cheap and easy as cubed Spam tossed in macaroni and cheese, others as sophisticated and spendy as Spam lobster thermidor. The Spam website contains the largest recipe clearinghouse, though none are listed under the categories for vegetarian, dessert, or beverages. The Book of Spam even provides beer and wine pairings, suggesting American pale ales or sweet, fruity Rieslings.

Spam musubi, a Hawaiian delicacy
courtesy of Hormel Foods
Spam musubi, a Hawaiian delicacy

That night we feasted on Spam sushi, Spamburgers, Spam stir fry, and Spam spread, pureed with mayonnaise and sweet-pickle relish. A Spam casserole—baked beans, canned pineapple, brown sugar, and Spam—was the evening's surprise hit: a mushy, salty-sweet comfort. When all was said and done—when the recycling bin was full of Spam cans and the leftovers packed up in doggie bags—here's what we learned about cooking with Spam.

• The gel is gone! The clear, fatty gel that once encased each block of Spam was eliminated in 2001, when Hormel added potato starch to the mix to absorb the gelatinous grease. The only Spam buyers who miss the gel are those who apparently liked using it—believe it or not—as furniture polish.

• You can actually eat Spam straight from the can. Seriously. It's not bad; it's a lot like bologna. Still, the preferred preparation is seared for a few minutes on both sides so that it's caramel-crisp on the outside and squishy in the middle.

• If you slice Spam very thin and cook it until it almost starts to blacken, you can make what we called "Spam crackers," or alternately, "Spackers." They taste a lot like bacon, though Spam already tastes like bacon. And if it's not bacon-y enough for you, there's always Spam with Bacon.

• Don't buy Garlic Spam. It smells like a mix of sweaty feet and vomit, and doesn't taste a whole lot better.

• Spam Lite might seem like an oxymoron, but it's for real. Compared to Spam Classic, Lite tastes meatier, probably because the salt and fat are toned down enough to allow you to actually taste the main ingredient. Classic has a more pleasing melty, fatty texture, but it's almost too salty to be eaten by itself.

• Despite preconceived notions ("You'd think a Minnesota company would pussyfoot with the spices," my friend remarked.), Hot and Spicy Spam lives up to its name, with a pleasant Tabasco burn.

• Spam Golden Honey Grail, packaged in a special Monty Python collector's-edition can, is the most succulent manna—its sweetness like syrup mixing with sausage—and was the top performer in our unscientific taste test. The only downside: The licensing agreement with the Spamalot folks bumped the price up to $5 a can.

When a few guests reached for seconds of my Spam dessert—cubes of chocolate-dipped Spam, a riff on chocolate-covered bacon—I considered the dinner a success. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to track down a Spam brownie recipe, mentioned by former Congressman Gil Gutknecht in a recent New York Times article.) By that time, our table talk had devolved into a discussion about the guys in Wisconsin who dug up a young woman's grave with the intent of having sex with her corpse (they'd seen her obituary photo and apparently found her attractive). One of my friends remarked that perhaps Spam would never shake its lowbrow roots. "This is exactly the kind of conversation you're supposed to have when you're eating Spam," she said. 

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