Spam Hits The Spotlight At 50

October 31, 1990|By Rosemary Knower

I won't say that everybody has a Spam story, but many people do. Mine begins once upon a time in Baltimore, when four friends lived at the top of Wickham Road, just near a big, jungly forest of tall trees. Now, the four friends had been told by their mothers not to go into the forest, but they kept looking longingly at the green and secret depths, so close to their red brick row houses.

"You'll get ticks," said their mothers. "You'll fall and get hurt. You'll get lost. You'll get dirty!"

One fateful Saturday afternoon, the four had, as usual, blown their allowances in Irvington on a movie (25 cents) and a shared box of Good & Plenty ("No fair! How come you take all the pink ones?") It was a Tarzan movie. During the streetcar ride home, visions of swinging on vines and cooking over a fire danced in their heads. Of course they couldn't run away on Sunday, because they all had to go to church.

By late morning that summer Monday, their busy mothers began to notice how quiet it was. There was no sound up and down the block but the grinding agitations of the ringer washers, squeezing through the white load soaked in bluing, and the flap of sheets on the backyard lines. On a normal day the four friends would squabble over hopscotch chalked on the back alley. Why was it so quiet? Quick investigation revealed all four were missing, along with a quart bottle of chocolate milk, half a loaf of Koester's bread, a can of Spam and a box of matches.

We were enjoying ourselves in the forbidden forest, swinging on monkey vines over great green depths of clearing, trying to start a fire with wet sticks, and washing down hunks of Spam and bread with chocolate milk and careless abandon. We had taken the Spam because none of us were allowed to use a can opener unless there was an adult around -- remember those wicked, pointy-hook can openers, before rotaries came in? Spam came with its own key. We curled the metal strip all the way around and then used the top to dig out bites.

When we got home, very dirty, that afternoon, reproaches ranged from, "Just wait till your father gets home," to, "You'll be sorry when you see me in my coffin." We were all sent to bed with no supper, I believe -- but as we were still chock-full of Spam chunks, it didn't matter.

There are many more Spam tales, some of which the Hormel historians have collected this year in honor of Spam's 50th anniversary. The much-maligned lunch meat ("100 percent pure pork shoulder, no fillers, no cereals, no meat by-products, Cold or Hot, Spam hits the Spot!") enjoyed its period of greatest use, as well as greatest opprobrium, during World War II.

Margaret Thatcher remembers having it as a special Christmas treat in 1943. Nikita Khrushchev claimed Spam was partly responsible for the hungry Russian army's victories, though he added that the men had a number of off-color jokes about it. Even Dwight Eisenhower praised it -- as too much of a good thing.

The Hormel Girls -- a troupe of 60 -- toured the country singing stirring ditties such as this one written to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean":

SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM,

Hormel's new miracle meat in a can,

Tastes fine, saves time,

If you want something grand,

Ask for Spam.

Today's Spam has joined the culinary revolution with a lower-salt version, a smoked version, and a smaller can for smaller families. No longer is Spam just frizzled in a skillet to a brown crust, which is how most of us remember eating it.

Most users, though, probably still mainline their Spam -- Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia admits to eating a Spam-and-mayonnaise-on-white-bread sandwich three times a week. And he's got company. About 228 cans per minute are consumed in the United States. The homely blue can with the bright pink brick is recognizable -- and sold -- from Afghanistan to Venezuela.

There are even Spam festivals. At last year's Hawaii Maui Mall Spam Cook-off, Spam spaghetti tied with Spam-in-a-volcano for top honors. (Grand Honors for camp, however, must be awarded the Spam carving contest held last February in Seattle. The winning sculpture was a lunch meat replica of Stonehenge (Spamhenge, natch).

If all this makes you long to rush right out and get a can, you might like to try Hormel's nouveau recipes below. I am content to remember Spam as it was, munched in that sunny jungle clearing that has long since been paved over with apartment houses.

Spam fiesta salad

Serves four.

MARINADE:

1/4 cup lime juice

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3/4 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

2 cloves garlic, minced

SALAD:

12-ounce can low-salt, low-sodium Spam, cut into strips

1 onion, sliced

1 green bell pepper, cut in strips

1 small head of lettuce, washed & divided into four portions

12 cherry tomatoes, halved

In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine all marinade ingredients. Shake well.

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