Combined with rice and wrapped in nori seaweed. Served with eggs or topped with pineapple. Tossed in macaroni and cheese, stir-fry or salad. Is there no limit to the dishes Hawaiians will dream up using Spam?
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"As a child we would make Spam sandwiches of Spam straight from the can on white bread with mayonnaise," says Ann Kondo Corum, who grew up in Hawaii in the 50s and has written several Spam-inspired cookbooks.
Today, Hawaiians eat more than 6 million cans of Spam a year, the nation's highest per capita consumption of the processed meat, which is cobbled together from a mixture of pork shoulder, ham, sugar and salt.
A presidential endorsement
And recently, it got a nod from the eater-in-chief. While vacationing in Hawaii in December, President Barack Obama was seen snacking on a Spam-filled sushi-like concoction while playing golf.
The state's love affair with Spam began during World War II, when rationing created just the right conditions for the rise of a meat that needs no refrigeration and has a remarkably long shelf life (indefinitely, the company says).
After the war, Spam remained a staple, but only took off during the '70s, when the product enjoyed a sort of epicurean Renaissance. Somebody — details are a bit murky — created Spam musubi, a sushi-like snack. Suddenly, Spam got hot.
Today, mass-produced Spam musubi — teriyaki-fried Spam served on nori-wrapped rice — is widely available, including at most convenience stores.
Corum, whose books include "Hawaii's Spam Cookbook," attributes the popularity partly to Hawaii's large Asian population. "Asians eat a lot of rice. Spam is salty and it goes well with rice," she says.
While Spam musubi (musubi refers to a Japanese rice treat) remains the most popular Spam dish, the potted meat is served in a variety of forms and at both high-end restaurants and fast food joints.
Award-winning restaurateur Sam Choy serves Spam kebabs. McDonald's and Burger King dish up Spam and eggs.
"They don't have burger wars in Hawaii, they have Spam burger wars," says Swen Neufeldt, group product manager at Hormel Foods, the Austin, Minn., company that produces Spam.
In fact, while Spam is much mocked on the mainland, the canned meat often is referred to as Hawaiian steak.
"People on the mainland look down on it as white trash food because they've never had it," says Corum. "If you've only had it baked with pineapple on top of it, that's understandable.
"But cooked other ways, like in stir-fry, it's really good," she says. "It's the same negative feeling some people have toward organ meats like tongue. But if you go to France those things are a delicacy."
'It's pretty mainstream'
And Neufeldt argues that Hawaii isn't alone, pointing out that the product is in a third of U.S. households.
"It's pretty mainstream," says Neufeldt, adding that Spam now comes in 11 flavors. "We have a Spam state fair recipe contest each year. We go to state fairs around the country and I'm just amazed at the creative uses that people come up with. It's definitely mainstream. I think the joking and kidding is more in the media than in the mainstream."
He may be right. This year's winner of the Spam state fair recipe contest — a nacho burger made with Spam, jalapenos and guacamole — came from Colorado (not among the top five Spam-consuming states).
"You can do anything with it," says Corum. "Well, almost anything. You just can't make a dessert with it. I tried to make a Spam cake once and it was just terrible."
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