Dec 19, 2008

Food - Welcome back,Spam

Joel Stein

Those once crucial food-shopping decisions between local and organic became a lot less important when the recession rolled in. Sales of Spam, which comes in neither of those varieties, haven't been this big since World War II, when soldiers overseas were sent vacuum-sealed cans of cooked pork shoulder, ham, water, sugar, salt, sodium nitrite (to maintain the porcine color) and potato starch (to maintain the cat-food-like consistency).

I grew up in the 1970s, and even though my suburban menu included Velveeta, Saucy Susan and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, we did not eat Spam. So when I tried it in Hawaii--by far the biggest Spam-eating state, thanks to an influx of World War II soldiers, poverty and a palate used to poi--I was surprised that it wasn't bad. Kind of smoky and not at all gelatinous. With many of the top restaurants hurting, I figured I'd ask some of the country's best chefs what kind of cheap dishes they could make with the stuff--since they might have to soon. (See the Top 10 food trends of the year.)

It turns out that a lot of the chefs had already cooked Spam. Rick Moonen, the brilliant seafoodie in Las Vegas, once made some exhausted mountain-biking friends Spam and eggs procured at a produce-unfriendly general store in the middle of the Catskills. "They say it was one of the best meals of their life," he says. Likewise, Michael Fiorello of Chicago's Mercat a la Planxa was with a girlfriend a couple of years ago in an area without an open grocery store, so after a trip to CVS, he worked up a pizza with canned pineapples, canned corn and Spam that went over pretty well. "I don't know why people knock it," he says of the oft maligned spiced ham. Celebri-chef Kerry Simon is also a Spam defender. "Anything you can think of that you want to try, it's capable of," he says

Brandon Boudet of Dominick's in Los Angeles wasn't so sure. A Spam virgin, he blanched a bit when it plonked out of the can, all pink like a newborn mole rat. After bravely sautéing some little squares of Spam--for Spamghetti carbonara--he tested one and was surprised. It was pleasantly hamlike and not as salty as he had expected. And it was eerily airy. He was so confused, he grabbed the can and scanned the ingredients. It was the potato starch. That's what holds the shape but kind of melts in your mouth. He ate some more, still thrown by its lightness, and thought it would work better in a frisée-and-lardon salad, fried into light little bacony croutons. Or in a taco. "It could almost take the place of chicharrón," he says. "It's a healthier version." A healthier version of fried pork rind. I'm sure Spam will take whatever nutritional compliments it can get.

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