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Food & Drink

Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam!

We haven’t got much without Spam

Besides the mossies and blackflies, camping not so long ago meant one thing for certain: a nice greasy iron skillet, the outside so crusted with carbon you could carve your initials in it, nestled against the campfire rocks with chunky slices of browny-pink Spam sputtering away. Their destiny: tin-plate service with Libby’s pork ’n’ beans or Kraft dinner, whichever hadn’t been served with weenies the night before.

Not that we ate Spam routinely, but it suited many of us Canadian campers to a T. It was tasty, and, given a slice of nice crispy-fried Spam today, you might well agree though you’d likely never admit to such pedestrian tastes, at least not publicly.

It was definitely economical, coming in at something like a dime a serving for a family of five. And it was nice and high in fat, efficiently fuelling the average human body, notably smaller than the average body today despite the consumption of such indulgences as Spam and its counterparts, Prem, Spork, Mor and other fun-named products that could have been Spock’s cousins on Star Trek.

But the biggest bonus: Spam was safe and practical for those pre-RV family camp moments, when the fridge was a cooler with a bag of ice that was more often than not replaced only after it had long turned to water.

Canning is a form of partial cooking. When done right – which housemarm in the 1800s wasn’t terrified of inadvertently killing off her whole family with a jar of potted meat gone wrong? – it can be a very effective way of preserving flavour and good health. Food science expert Harold McGee notes that 114-year-old canned meat has been "eaten without distaste, if not exactly with pleasure." Presumably everyone lived to tell about it.

We pretty much have World War II to thank for popularizing canned meat – the convenience, the idea of eating out of tins and all that. The mainstay of K rations, for men in the frontlines who had limited capability of cooking, and C rations, for those further back who could, was canned meat, including Spam, and cheese products (don’t ask).

Three meals of rations a day delivered a whopping 8,300 calories with 99 grams of protein. And if you think that’s unthinkable, a third type of ration delivered even more calories in the form of fortified chocolate bars specially formulated not to melt, even in the tropics. Now someone should market that for campers and hikers today.

Before the war a savvy housewife could choose from 12 varieties of canned meat; after the war, there were more like 40. Today, only Spam, which was first introduced in 1937 as "Hormel’s Spiced Ham," is widely distributed.

And, baby, look at ’er now: there’s Spam Lite, Spam Smoke Flavored, Spam Oven-roasted Turkey (100 per cent lean white meat) and Spam Less Sodium.

Hold on a minute. I feel a Monty Python skit coming on.

It’s no secret that the term "spam" for unsolicited commercial e-mail (isn’t Spam a much friendlier term?) arose from the legendary skit where the Pythonesque Vikings sing Spam, Spam and Spam louder and louder, drowning out everyone else and driving everyone nuts as the waitress-in-drag lists the menu items: egg and Spam; egg, bacon and Spam; egg, bacon, sausage and Spam; Spam, bacon, sausage and Spam… and on it goes.

And you thought the junk e-mail was so-named because Spam is junk food? Harrumph, I can feel Jay C. Hormel rolling over in his grave at the very suggestion. Nothing junky about Spam, he would point out – it’s good old pork shoulder and ham with "secret spices" added for flavour.

In fact, former British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher once described Spam as "a wartime delicacy," and we all know what good taste she had. And given that 6 billion cans of spam have been sold since 1937, you might even believe that 6 billion-plus consumers can’t be all wrong.

Truth be told, I hadn’t let a morsel of Spam cross my lips since those long-ago camping days in the Rocky Mountains until my 50 th birthday. In honour of same we threw, what else?, a ’50s-themed bash which drew out more pokey men’s cardigans, rhinestone glasses and polka-dot taffeta dresses than were thought possible to exist on the same existential plane as iPods and BlackBerries.

People chipped in with ’50s-style hors-d’oeuvres – Cheez Whiz on celery sticks, dorky little pinwheel sandwiches, and cocktail weenies stabbed with a gherkin or little white pickled onion. But by far the No. 1 party munchie hit that night was Katie and David’s Spam sushi.

Not that we all ate sushi back in the ’50s – hell, we wouldn’t have known a sheet of nori from a notepad – but this perfect marriage of retro and hip pretty much encapsulated the evening and how we all felt. Plus it was really good, we all declared publicly, once you got over the concept and gave it a whirl.

When you scratch a little deeper, Spam sushi becomes less ridiculous than one might think. In the U.S., Hawaiians consume more Spam than do residents of any other state. And Spam is a bestseller amongst Koreans.

So, East meets West, tradition meets convenience in a tubular, tasty way. What could be more modern – or is that post-post-modern – than that?

See for yourself:

Spam sushi

2 cups uncooked short grain white rice

2 cups water

6 tablespoons rice vinegar

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup oyster sauce

1/2 cup white sugar

1 (12 ounce) tin of Spam

5 sheets sushi nori (dry seaweed)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Soak uncooked rice for 4 hours; drain and rinse. In a saucepan bring 2 cups water to a boil. Add rice and stir. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in rice vinegar, and set aside to cool. In a separate bowl, stir together soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sugar until sugar is completely dissolved. Slice luncheon meat lengthwise into 10 slices, or to desired thickness, and marinate in sauce for 5 minutes. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Cook slices for 2 minutes per side, or until lightly browned. Cut nori sheets in half and lay on a flat work surface. Place a rice press in the centre of the sheet, and press rice tightly inside. Top with a slice of luncheon meat, roll, then remove press. Wrap nori around rice mould, sealing edges with a small amount of water. Serve with a smile and tell your guests they’ve just been spammed.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who once almost cut her finger off (or at least that’s how it felt) while opening a tin of Prem.