When it comes to food, I rarely turn down a dare. Whether the food in question is haggis or headcheese, tongue tacos or tortoise soup, I'm usually up for a challenge. Even so, there is one food that I have studiously avoided for my entire life.
It's not that I'm opposed to processed meat. I've eaten more than my fair share of scrapple, pate, pon hoss, sausage, blood pudding, and other ground goodies. However, there's something about Spam that always turned me off. Maybe it was the 1950's-style ads on the old-fashioned can, or maybe it's the fact that the meat was just a little too pink. Regardless, I could never bring myself to give it a try.
Recently, however, amid reports of the growing popularity of the canned meat, I felt like the time had come to give it a try. After all, with some of America's top chefs using Spam in their cooking, my detachment started to seem a little provincial. Besides, the ingredients (pork shoulder, ham, water, sugar, salt, sodium nitrite, and potato starch) are a lot more natural than I might have thought, and the price is certainly attractive.
As I got closer to trying the famed meat product, I decided to explore some of its cultural impact. After all, while I don't know anybody who regularly eats the stuff, most grocery stores stock huge piles of it. 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. Clearly, somebody is putting down huge quantities of processed pork.
I was somewhat surprised to discover that, 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 experts argue claim that the canned snack gained popularity during World War II, novelist 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.
Given the cultural impact of Spam in Hawaii, I decided to try Spam Musubi for my first Spam snack. A a popular Hawaiian street food, 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, almost like a piece of Spam sushi; as soon as she saw it, my wife collapsed in a fit of giggles.
I have to admit that my first run-in with Spam 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 landed somewhere between pate and whipped butter. 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. While it isn't one of my favorite foods, I might just have to try Michael Fiorello's Hot and Spice Spam Coca, with Roasted Piquillo-Pineapple Escabeche!
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