Spam: the loaf, the legend, the laughter

Those who love it support it with recipes from kids at the state fair

August 25, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | By Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

In pointing out that their gift shop offers a wide array of merchandise, the folks who run the Spam Museum in Minnesota say "Spam is more than just something to eat!"

The remark seems culturally unplugged to a breathtaking degree. After it is a tired national joke, a cultural signifier, a Monty Python schtick, an amusing sculptural medium, an emblem of food awfulness and more recently a noun and a verb associated with junk e-mail -- after all this, Spam is actually something to eat.

Hormel Foods sponsors annual competitions around the country in which people concoct recipes and win prizes, all to drum up press for their product and emphasize a point that might get lost in the shuffle.

Spam is something to eat?

Must be: the six billionth can reportedly sold this summer. Billion with a B. Imagine.

The Maryland State Fair this year stages two contests, one for adults and, for the first time this year, one for children on Saturday. It's all in jolly good fun, naturally, as Hormel, like Al Gore and Dan Quayle before him, apparently realized that when you become a national joke you have two choices: join in or be chewed up.

Recipes must be made with Spam Oven Roasted Turkey, introduced in 1999 as the newest addition to a product line that already included "lite," low-sodium and smoke-flavored versions of the original blend of pork, sugar and seasonings that Jay Hormel devised in 1937 to make use of some surplus pork shoulders.

The newest version replaces pork with white-meat turkey and particular quantities of turkey broth, modified vegetable starch, salt, sugar, sodium phosphate, turkey fat and sundry seasonings. Funnily enough, while the basis of the product is turkey meat, the can lists as a separate ingredient "natural turkey flavor."

Of course, the Spam contest recipes sound outrageous, like something from the old Seinfeld bit wondering whether cereal companies were serious about offering a recipe for Cornflakes Cantonese.

Contestants past have dressed Spam up in breakfast burritos, devised casseroles with potato and cheese, turned out fruit and vegetable Spam salads, bean soups and frittatas and a thing called simply Spam Surprise.

Where will it all end?

This year once more, contestants have been clicking through the Web and flipping through cookbooks, testing their imaginations. First prize: $150 and a shot at a national prize involving a grand in cash and trips to the Spam Museum and the Mall of America.

Sarah Baker of Hanover, who turns 13 in September, hit upon her contest recipe by process of elimination. She looked everywhere and could not find a recipe that called for molding the stuff into a ball. She decided to do that.

"It's like a cheese ball," says Sarah, one of about 10 scheduled kid contestants. "You put all the ingredients together, make it into a ball, wrap it in Saran Wrap and put it in the refrigerator for two days."

To satisfy the 30-minute preparation limit, Sarah says, the recipe may be made with less refrigeration time. Compensate by boosting the cream cheese content for firmness. Honest, she says it works.

As the rules require, Sarah is using an entire 12-ounce can of Spam. To this she adds finely chopped red pepper, garlic powder, a package of powdered ranch dressing, assorted seasonings and cream cheese. The ball is then rolled in chopped pecans.

And -- imagine this -- served. With crackers.

Really, it's good, says Sarah. If you don't believe her, ask her grandparents, who had some Spam ball during a July Fourth visit from Florida.

"My grandmother thought it would be a winner," says Sarah.

That could be tough, as the Spam ball will face Emily Johnson's Man Oh Man Spam Salsa. Two weeks before the contest, this was still a work in progress.

"It might have chili peppers, I'm not sure," says Emily, who is going on 9 years old and lives in Hampstead. "I'm still sort of figuring it out."

She's sure about the tomatoes, the green pepper and the tomato sauce. Otherwise, she'll be relying on her instincts, which have been bold in the past.

At the Maryland State Fair in 1998, even before there was a children's competition, 4-year-old Emily piggybacked on her mother's entry and tried combining regular Spam luncheon meat with pesto and peanut butter on white bread. It could not be considered for competition, but the judges gave her a ribbon for participating.

Now she's back. So is her mother, Donna, who took first place in 1996 with a black bean Spam soup and has participated ever since.

It happens that Sigmund Freud, who knew something about childhood trauma, has a distant relative taking part in this year's competition. Carol Freud, 11, is not quite clear about how she's related to the father of psychoanalysis, but she knows she is. She's also certain that she enjoys Spam, especially when her grandmother makes a salad with it.

The Severna Park girl will weigh in with a Chocolate Spam Truffle, which actually contains no chocolate. While it looks like a fancy candy, it's made of brie, cream cheese, pumpernickel bread and, of course, Spam. After less successful experiments with a pizza, muffins and a curry preparation, she settled on the ersatz truffle.

Spam is something to dress up as a bonbon.

"It was just looking at combinations of different things" in cookbooks and on the Internet that gave her the notion, Carol says.

Spam appetit

What: Kids Spam Oven Roasted Turkey Recipe Competition

When: Saturday, 10 a.m.

Where: Maryland State Fairgrounds, Timonium. Demonstration kitchen at the Home Arts Building. Use the Land Street entrance.

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