My earliest memory of Spam goes back to a summer vacation in Romania in 1995. At a roadside picnic table, one of my relatives pulled out a can of it. My brother and I, ages 14 and 12, respectively, both born and raised in New York, recoiled in horror. My father said, "What? We ate this growing up. It's good. Eat it."
This was surprising. Spam, so American to me, was available on this side of the Iron Curtain? And my father, so granola, so opposed to processed foods at home, was a fan? And we were supposed to trust meat out of a tin after each of us had already fallen victim to violent food poisoning on this trip? My mother later admitted she regularly ate Spam while hiking in the Carpathian Mountains. She would heat cans of Spam on hot rocks. It was an easy nonperishable food.
My gateway to Spam as an adult was Hawaiian pizza. Growing up in Brooklyn, the notion of pineapple on a slice was anathema. And the combination of sweet and savory, as a general rule, was frowned upon in my Romanian-Hungarian family. But as a hungry graduate student in Seattle, who was I to say no to free food at a teacher training? Reader: I liked it.
I realized I didn't know anything about Hawaiian food, which inevitably led me to delve deep into Spam. Spam was developed during World War II and became popular in the years that followed, in times of food shortages. Its postwar popularity eventually reached Hawaii, where it became a beloved comfort food. Hawaii is now the state with the highest per capita consumption rate of what is also known as "Hawaiian steak"; the 2017 Spam Jam festival in Waikiki drew around 25,000 people. It was time for me to find out what all the fuss was about.
At the Central District's Cheeky Cafe, ready to give this curious meat another try, I dug into Spam and eggs. The pan sear cast out the disconcerting image I had in my mind of wet, pink, quivering stuff, the white rice came flecked with nori, which added a mildly smoky taste, and I ordered my eggs over easy, which allowed the yolks to permeate all that rice and salty goodness.
Whereas the Spam and eggs at Cheeky was supremely comforting, the Spam musubi at Columbia City's Super Six was luscious. Don't get me wrong, the pork-belly musubi also proved delightful. But I was already a fan of pork belly, and the Spam worked just as well in this context. Once again, the Spam-rice-nori combination—this time in a little two-bite bundle—brought me joy. It was the perfect savory snack.
Finally, I headed to the Kauai Family Restaurant in Georgetown, touted by some as "the most authentic Hawaiian food in town." It was a Saturday morning, and the family-heavy brunch crowd was bustling. Live island music added to the cheerful chaos. I went all in on the Blahla Special, a wonder for a one-meal day: saimin (a noodle soup), rice, two eggs, and two servings each of Spam, Vienna sausage, and Portuguese sausage. The meats ran the whole gamut of texture and spice: the mild, soft Vienna sausage, which I suppose I could've done without; the salty, firmer Spam; and the spicy, substantial Portuguese sausage. The saimin was a dream. Lettuce added a gentle crunch to slivers of Spam, egg, and soft noodles. A slice of fish cake, white with a swirl of pink, was a tad sweeter and more flavorful than I expected. Green onion and bits of nori floated in the rich broth, a most welcome method of washing down the rest of this gut buster. Spam, it seems, had become my gateway to saimin.
Coming around to Spam wasn't exactly like coming around to kale, and my body was begging me to come up with a story idea about something healthy, like 100 ways to prepare a radish. I've heard of highfalutin uses of Spam, in ravioli and in amuse-bouches layered with pâté. And that's fun and all, but it's Spam's history—and future—that compelled me more than eating it.
Under an authoritarian president with questionable policies, who's to say how quickly we'll fall back on hard times? In March, Mexico canceled its sugar-export permits to the United States, in part because of unfilled positions at the US Department of Commerce. That same month in Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Lisa Oldfield, a star of Real Housewives of Sydney, stored 5,000 cans of Spam and 125,000 liters of water in a shelter built to withstand an atomic explosion. She fears Trump, ISIS, and China, in that order.
Beyond its aesthetics, there are other reasons why naked Spam is unpalatable. The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food by Ted Genoways tells an uglier story about Spam. How is it so cheap? Well, according to the book, poor labor practices for one: severed fingers, noxious fumes, disability claims rejected. Everything has its price.
So what about vegan Spam? According to a 2014 story from PRI's The World, Aubry and Kale Walch—siblings who grew up in Guam (where the canned meat is very popular) and moved near the Spam capital of Austin, Minnesota (i.e., Hormel's headquarters)—were trying to create vegan Spam, having developed all manner of other fake meats for their Minneapolis-based venture, the Herbivorous Butcher. They got the taste right with vital wheat gluten, garbanzo flour, peanut butter, and tapioca flour. They still hadn't mastered the texture, however. I reached out for an update and found out that, alas, the recipe is still a work in progress. As vegans, the Walches must be working from memory, just as I grasp at that memory of my dad at a roadside picnic table, putting a slab of Spam on crusty black bread schmeared with mustard. If they can master the vegan version, and I can find a great loaf of pumpernickel, I just might try it that way next time.
I hope vegan Spam promises the same shelf life. Almost daily, I scan my pantry for nonperishables—beans, canned tuna and sardines, soups—and wonder how long they'll last. When we're hiding in the basement waiting for safer days, wouldn't we want a little variety, something with the potential to give comfort?
As such, I asked my parents for more details about Spam in Romania. My father now claims he never ate Spam. Why would he? he asks—it's all processed meat and not very Romanian. Yet I have a distinct memory of him, in 1995, defending Spam. Did I manufacture the memory? My husband suggests this is my Sinbad's Shazaam, the genie movie that never happened. My brother conjectures that perhaps our father had been in "emergency mode," getting us kids to eat whatever was at hand because we were in the middle of nowhere in Romania, and growing up in Romania meant eating what was available. My mother's Spam-as-hiking-provision story must have featured another canned ham more readily available under Communism. "Oh," she contends now, "it was definitely weird meat from a can."