I think, therefore I SPAM
SPAM is high in saturated fat and sodium, giving it a less than one out of five star rating on nutritiondata.com in the category of "optimum health." And it's preserved using sodium nitrite, which some research suggests turns into a cancer-causing carcinogen when it mixes with certain enzymes in meat (other research claims it is totally safe, as it is found in other foods like celery).
In Hawai'i, SPAM is also a reminder of the stormy seas of the 20th century that our grandparents survived. Whether they were Native Hawaiians cut off from land (i.e. food) and sovereignty, or immigrants caught up in exploitative labor systems, SPAM, along with other cheap, processed foods, must have seemed like a life raft. But one hopes to make it back to the ship, not drift forever.
Despite this bleak history, people in the islands today really, really like SPAM, and even those of us who try to "eat local" have a hard time imagining Hawai'i without the quintessential "local" food: SPAM musubi. So let me ask you this: What if we made it?
An idea crazier than canned meat
It hit me like a ton of meat-bricks. Could I feed my future children SPAM that I had made—at home—using local pork—following a recipe so arduous that I wouldn't want to do it very often, thus avoiding SPAM saturation in my household?
A quick Google search revealed three foodie bloggers who'd done it already: Amy Kim from kimchimom.com had adapted a recipe developed by Stefani Pollack of cupcakeproject.com. Pollack had done a lot of R&D to craft her own recipe from the ground up, but she borrowed some basic ideas from the blog of Morgan Lee, a San Francisco-based lawyer by day and occasional amateur pop-up chef by night.
Back in 2011 Lee ran a pop-up at a series of underground markets that provided a venue for small-scale and aspiring chefs to try out their stuff. Lee, who is originally from Maui, peddled classic local dishes like loco moco and SPAM musubi to impressed SF crowds. In developing her homemade SPAM for the musubi, she depended on the charcuterie expertise of her friend, Chef Neil Davidson of Mission Gastroclub.
"There's not a lot of Hawaiian food in San Francisco or in general on the mainland. It's kind of hard to find it," says Lee as we talk over the phone about her pioneering homemade SPAM experiments.
"When I was thinking about what would be my niche …I was just thinking what's sold at food fairs in Hawai'i, and it's typical stuff: malasadas, shave ice, musubi … but here it's not standard," she says.
Recognizing that "people are kind of grossed out by SPAM on the mainland," Lee keyed in to the popularity of the do-it-yourself, farm-to-table, local/organic movement in San Francisco. "What they would be into is if I figured out how to make it," she says. Through a process of trial and error, Lee and Davidson were able to produce a SPAM-like luncheon meat made with pork, chicken, and duck.
"I live in San Francisco and I eat a lot of vegan and organic and local and sustainable food now days… but I still have a nostalgic place in my heart for something like SPAM because I've grown up with it," Lee says.
Despite the success of her pop-up, Lee has stuck with her day-job. But the recipe she and Davidson created inspired others on the Internet and proved that homemade SPAM is within the realm of the possible.
Emboldened with this knowledge, I set off to make my own version of SPAM here—in Honolulu—with the help of two friends, Aiko Yamashiro and Bryan Kuwada. Aside from being foodies, great company and smart kids who feel that how we eat should be a big part of any conversation about Hawai'i's future, these two brought a crucial element to our endeavor: a meat grinder.
We opted to follow Kim's version of Pollack's recipe, because it seemed the least scary. Kim writes longingly on her blog about growing up eating SPAM, rice and kimchi, so we knew that she knew what she was looking for in a recipe.
(Note on ingredients: We aimed to cut out sodium nitrite from the "six simple ingredients" that make up classic SPAM. However, in retrospect some might have snuck in via the celery powder used in Applegate Farms ham. Live and learn.)
That's it! The procedure involves grinding, mincing and mixing all the ingredients together; packing it all into a meatloaf pan; baking for three hours at 300 degrees in a water bath (like the kind used to poach pâté); and finally draining the fat and pressing the loaf overnight in the refrigerator with some kind of weight. Check out Kim's recipe for more details.
Aside from a few meat grinder mishaps this was an easy procedure to pull off with three people working together. As a project it took up most of the weekend, from locating ingredients Saturday morning to Sunday-morning breakfast and musubi-making. Most of it was wait time, which we used to do things like eat gelato, take naps, and talk about our favorite ways to eat SPAM. We went to bed Saturday night with visions of spiced hams dancing in our heads.
We knew we'd hit success when we popped our loaf out of the pan and saw that weird yet familiar gel congealed on the edges.
The verdict: yum. Our demystified mystery meat tasted remarkably SPAM-y—even better I would argue, as it was fresher and more flavorful. (The crispy fried parts from the edges were amazing.) But the texture fell short of real SPAM. Though slices held together while cold, they tended to crumble and stick in the frying pan.
We had a long discussion (over our faux-SPAM, eggs and rice) about what we could do to solve the texture problem next time. Bryan was full of ideas for improvement, but he was experiencing a sense of futility in thinking so hard about how to imitate what the industrial food system had already perfected.
There is a sort of paradox to it. You are aiming to make SPAM, but at the same time fundamentally trying to not make SPAM.
This begs the question, can SPAM ever be fully recuperated? We'd used local pork, thereby supporting a local piggery. But all we had done was produce a SPAM-like product that was expensive, time-consuming and still, ultimately, not that good for us. This was certainly not a solution for poor families living in food deserts of unhealthy processed foods, and this was not the recovery of an indigenous food like poi, which is culturally significant, good for you and part of a healthy relationship to 'āina.
Aiko put it best when she said that our efforts were really aimed at de-processing SPAM. Instead of worshipping at the aluminum altar of the grocery-store sale display, we'd had fun together getting our hands greasy and maybe creating a new food tradition to share with our families. We now had the knowledge to experiment and revise the recipe, creating endless alternate-SPAM possibilities. And in the (de-)process, we'd found out for ourselves just what lies in the pink heart of SPAM-ness. Maybe that counts for something.