The Great Debate

Some folks see the meat as a treat, but others turn a cold shoulder to the product that's celebrating its 70th anniversary

I Hate It!

August 22, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

I've always hated Spam. Since before I was born. Well, practically.

It is no exaggeration to say that Spam never had a chance with me. A child of the suburbs in the 1950s, I was all too sensitive to the domestic depravities of that era. And Spam, 16 years on the market by the time I was born, qualified as one of those depravities.

For one, Spam was the color of the 1950s: preternaturally pink, a slightly speckled flesh tone shared by Caucasians and pigs. When fried, Spam acquired an even more unfortunate hue, kind of like a radioactive tongue. Preferably served with bilious green canned vegetables in a nauseating color scheme, Spam was a visual depressant, able to knock the wind out of the most ebullient child.

Even at the time, I was painfully aware that the perpetrators of this sorry excuse for a foodstuff were attempting to sell a sow's ear (or pork shoulder) as a silk purse. It was as if they were inculcating Mr. and Mrs. Consumer and the tykes with the notion that this was all you could expect of life - but you'd better well be pleased with it.

I was on to them. Maybe that's why I associate Peggy Lee's classic lament, "Is That All There Is," with the underwhelming table set for children in the 1950s.

As I look back, the song, recorded by Lee in 1969, is the perfect existential paean to the previous decade, when television soap operas, the Cold War and Dick, Jane and Sally shaped our expectations. In this stifling climate, Spam was the dish of last resort, prepared by

desperate housewives who for the life of them couldn't produce one more dazzling roast for their Ward Cleavers. Besides, with pineapple chunks for garnish and a cocktail or two, who would know the difference?

So, I remember reasoning, however inchoately: What is the point of life, if Spam is all there is?

In keeping with this bleak social message (at least as I interpreted it), Spam smacked of despair, as if all that was sad, wanting and meaningless had been packed into that can. Aggressively salty, and ultra high in fat, Spam was the poor man's pate, an edible iteration of drudgery and routine and suburban malaise.

An overreaction to a benign product? Not at all. It's a visceral response to a product that through the years has acquired a campy, iconic notoriety and, as a consequence, justifies my rant.

I'm not sure how Spam entered my life. Maybe my mother got even more desperate than usual one night and put it on the table. I picture it now, a malleable cube of mystery meat awaiting the ministrations of a frazzled housewife. Or it's possible that Spam was served by one of my mother's equally frazzled friends.

Had I not grown up when and where I did, perhaps Spam might not have posed such a serious threat to my personal well-being. A few months ago, I was in a drugstore in Hawaii, where stacks of 7-ounce Spam cans commanded the end-aisle display. Never mind the unappetizing prospect of buying food in a drugstore. Spam is famously beloved in Hawaii and widely available at corner stores, shave-ice joints and lunch shacks. If I had grown up with Spam as part of a tropical backdrop that included palm trees, the Pacific Ocean and a "hang loose" frame of mind, it might not have been so insidious.

On that same trip, at a shave-ice stand, I was tempted to purchase a Spam musubi, a popular Japanese-inspired snack made with a ginger-infused slab of Spam on a block of rice, bound by a strip of dried seaweed. But again the past intruded, and the musubi stayed on the shelf.

Later, I did screw up the courage to try Spam to see if it was all I had remembered. I took a small nibble straight from the can. Not as unpalatable as anticipated. But potent enough for a frightening '50s flashback.

stephanie.shapiro@baltsun.com

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