A Love Letter to SPAM

published Jan 22, 2016
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Dear SPAM,

Those who don’t know you pass you by. Some even look at you with disgust or derision. They look at those of us who love you the same way, even with pity, and not a little bit of confusion. To them I say: You just don’t understand.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

They don’t understand that appearances aren’t everything. You may be pink, squishy, and a bit gelatinous — and sure, you’re not made with the best parts — but we are greater than the sum of our parts. Your appearance is not your best self. After all, looks can be deceiving.

I grew up on Guam and lived in Hawaii for a number of years. SPAM is ubiquitous in both places; it’s even served on the breakfast menu at McDonald’s. On Guam, we make SPAM kelaguen (our version of ceviche): chopped SPAM mixed with lemon juice, diced onions, and the local hot pepper. It might sound weird, but the saltiness of the SPAM and the tartness of the lemon are a match made in heaven. If there’s one thing I want you to take from this article, it’s don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.

When anyone I’ve encountered in the mainland U.S. hears about SPAM, they always get this face. One that’s usually some combination of people really eat that? and I’ve kind of been curious, but too terrified to try it. And every single person I’ve had the pleasure of introducing to SPAM has admitted their previous misconceptions about its supposed grossness. Sure, thinking of what SPAM actually is – precooked pork seasoned with salt and sugar, bound with modified potato starch, preserved with sodium nitrate, and stuffed into a can – isn’t exactly sexy. But whether it’s draped on a bed of sushi rice and wrapped snugly with seaweed, or mixed with lemon juice and onions, or simply fried, SPAM is a force to be reckoned with.

It’s really a matter of exposure (and undoubtedly, nostalgia). Most people that have an aversion to SPAM most likely didn’t grow up eating it, or they associate it with antiquated mysterious foodstuffs or poverty, or they just think the concept of it is unappetizing. In fact, Ty Matejowski, a food scholar who has written quite a bit about SPAM, reports that there is an assumption that adults who continue to eat SPAM in the U.S. eat it “because they are either on a budget or never developed a sophisticated palate.” Most often, people who have tried it but don’t like it just haven’t had it prepared properly.

Personally, the best way to have SPAM is in its purest form (aside from straight out of the can, which … you technically could. But don’t do that. Don’t ever do that). Just heat a pan over medium-high heat, and add thin slices to the dry pan, and fry. There’s plenty enough fat in the SPAM itself to prevent any kind of sticking (no one here is claiming SPAM is a healthful food – just a tasty one). The can says to fry until “golden-brown,” but it really is best when it’s more of a maroon color — and crispy (it needs to be crispy). Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. When served this way, with steamed white rice sprinkled with furikake (dried seaweed seasoning) and topped with an over-easy egg, all manner of decorum is completely lost and I have to consciously stop myself from shoveling it all straight into my mouth. I have zero chill when it comes to SPAM, eggs, and rice.

But I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself. If this is going to be your first time cracking open a can of SPAM, you may say, okay, but now what do I do? To even get it out of the can is a bit tricky. You have to kind of squeeze the shorter sides toward the middle of the can and shimmy it, tapping it at an angle against the cutting board you’ve prepared until it slides out with a distinguishable “plop.” You can even make it into a little dance – it may distract you or your dining companions from any apprehension you may feel that you’re about to eat SPAM. Once the glorious block of pork is on your cutting board, lay it flat so that the side that would have had the label is on the board. If what you’re making calls for it to be diced, do your thing. Otherwise, I’d recommend you slice the long side of the block into 1/4-inch portions.

So, SPAM, if you’re out there listening, know that when I think of you, I think of you fondly. A warmth fills my soul as you do my stomach. It has become my mission to get others to see you for what you are – a can of potential to defy expectation. When I reach for you, know that you are in good hands, and that lives will be changed. I can only hope you find someone like me to love you like I do.