SPAM in a Can
I do not like SPAM in a can I do not like it Sam I Am.
A few months ago I had the seemingly bright idea of doing a taste test of all the varieties of canned ‘Luncheon Meat’ that I could find locally. Of course, most everyone knows about SPAM as it’s a well-recognized brand around the world. But after perusing the aisles of mostly Asian food markets in Seattle I realized that there were so many more renditions of this mystery meat in a can.
To be honest, it’s taken me so long to write this piece not because of laziness or general malaise – rather, I’ve had a meat hangover from the event that has been hard to kick. This tasting event took place during the summer of 2015 and I’m still somewhat scarred by the entire process. Imagine the nightmare of having to try 18 kinds of luncheon meat ‘nude’ without any dressing, side or mask of flavor. What started out as a potentially fun idea ended in a very difficult, arduous 2+ hours of tasting followed by the consumption of several glasses of water throughout the night. In the end, I never wanted to see a can of meat again – SPAM or otherwise.
In order to complete a truly objective taste test I needed to enlist help. For there was no way that I was going to impose my ideals of what good or bad luncheon meat was without some corroboration from an expert group of panelists. Plus, it has been said that one man’s SPAM is another man’s mystery meat fantasy. Or something along those lines…
So I first asked my good buddy Marc Schermerhorn to take part in this difficult task. Many food-friendly folks in Seattle know Marc from his blog Baketard.com as well as his floral presence on social media. Marc is also a trained cook having worked with the likes of Jerry Traunfeld at The Herbfarm. He is, in his own right, an authority on all things meat.
Next up was the venerable Paul Osher – Chef and Owner of Ballard’s Porkchop & Co. I wanted Paul to join us not only because he has a love for charcuterie but also because the allure and irony involved in getting a Jewish reformed vegan to eat a bunch of salty pork products was just too good to resist. I felt it was a personal coup when he agreed to be a judge.
Last but not least was Christopher Yang who most recently worked at the now-defunct Dyne as a Community Manager and who has also spent time working as a cook at restaurants such as David Chang’s Momofuku Ko in NYC. Chris gave me a great introductory education on the importance of SPAM and luncheon meats in the Asian and South Pacific communities post-World War II.
The prospect of eating raw processed meat product straight from the can is not appetizing in the least. But really, it’s the only way to go if you want to experience the pure, unadulterated (at least by the tasters) flavors of each product. No, there will be no wiping of slime or other venom from the factory. It’s going to be straight up slice and eat for the four brave souls who volunteered their Saturday afternoon to complete this epic carnivorous journey together.
The scoring protocol is simple – each judge will taste each luncheon meat and then rate them on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being the best) in the following categories: Taste, Texture, Smell and Overall Appeal. The scores would then be tallied and the top 4 ‘favorites’ would be selected for…the final cook off where each judge will prepare a dish with one of the selected SPAM-like products. From there, we would pick an overall ‘winner’ of the competition.
As the coordinator of this contest, I had to somehow attempt to make it enjoyable via beverages. I thought of beer as a thirst quencher and then I nixed the idea as I didn’t personally want a belly full of SPAM fermenting in beer in the pit of my gut. So instead, I went old school and selected the most appropriate wines to taste with our ‘charcuterie’ du jour – I picked Beaujolais-Villages. No, not the Nouveau plonk that hits the shelves every November. Rather, the namesake wine from the region that is aged a bit more than six weeks and is an excellent accompaniment to pâté and the like.
Today’s selections were from the 2013 vintage and included a lovely bottle from the famed Burgundy producers Joseph Drouhin and Maison Louis Jadot. They were, in two words, ‘life savers’ for weary palates.
How does one go about procuring 18 different luncheon meats? Well, it involves saving up about $70 and venturing outside the realm of QFC and Safeway for starters. Fortunately, Seattle is blessed with an abundance of Asian food markets and my travels took me to many of them – all within a 15 mile radius of downtown.
If you want to experience the wealth of ‘meat in a can’ options available around town then head to places like Viet Wah, Uwaijmaya, 99 Ranch, Asian Food Center and Boo Han Market. They have some pretty interesting and unique things at each of these places and I always find myself wanting a translator and a cookbook as I don’t know what half of it is.
I had originally thought of doing a ‘blind tasting’ but decided against it as the cans just made the process a bit more interesting. It gave the opportunity for us judges to check out the graphics, labeled contents and origin of each product. Plus we realized that, in my excitement and haste, I’d accidentally purchased two cans of the same meat. So, we are really at 17 different cans vs. the planned 18.
Now down to 16 different cans…thanks Gladys.
Rounding out the field were the two circular-shaped entries from Poland and Holland. And another loaf.
The tasting began at the beginning with the Halal products being featured. After trying them both I can honestly tell you without question that they have nothing on the classic preparation of mechanically separated pork (and stuff). I’d laid out an array of mustard and cornichons to attempt to make this a more civilized event but alas, it was of no use. The aroma pervading my home was a cross between a pet kennel and a bad Sunday morning after a three-night bender.
They didn’t all look terrible but appearances can be deceiving. And what’s worse, it was very difficult to taste so many of these in a row. No matter how much wine I drank or mustard I ate with pickles they all began to taste vaguely the same after a while. I knew it was getting real when everyone started looking longingly at ‘The Dump Bucket’ which was rapidly filling up.
After making it through all 16 different products, it was time to tally the scores. The table below summarizes how we ranked each product based on our defined criteria with each judge’s top 4 highlighted in green.
At this point, we had selected our top four entries and were ready to use our culinary skills to create something palatable out of this porcine mess. First up was Paul who went the Mexican route and created a lovely little Tostada using fresh peaches, sour cream, and pickled carrots with the Lowell’s Gulasz Angielski luncheon meat.
Next up is Marc with his Sichuan-inspired creation using Roxy luncheon meat, rice cakes, chili oil and some kind of special brown sauce.
Chris goes mainstream with his presentation of SPAM fried rice and farm fresh egg. How could one resist?
And I wrap it up with a grilled Martin Purefoods slider glazed with hoisin served on a Hawaiian roll with aioli and slaw. And a beer as all the wine was gone.
I cannot say that any of these dishes were fantastic but the consensus was that they were all better than the naked product. But it did cleanse the palate a bit and help us come to some conclusions. And so we move on to declaring….
The Final Four
There were no real winners in this competition. Unless you count all the food markets that peddled this canned mess to me. But in fourth place with 51 total points is the legend – the one, the only – SPAM:
In third place we have the Polish entry from Lowell’s – Gulasz Angielski (Cured Chopped Pork Loaf):
In second place we have Roxy’s luncheon meat and it’s pseudo -Pate de Campagne-like texture and flavors:
And the winner is, weighing 12 ounces and hailing from Denmark – Martin Purefoods’ luncheon meat and it’s retro-1950’s packaging:
When thinking about this onerous task I had high hopes of discovering a never-before-experienced factory made charcuterie product that would make me re-think the entire oeuvre of processed meats. Unfortunately, this dream never became reality. And to top it off, this event forced me to drink about 2 gallons of water before passing out on the couch at about 8 p.m. that evening. I’m sure I suffered through nightmares involving meat separation machines and sad, lonely piggies.
As it turns out, all processed meats taste, well, salty and processed. Sure, there were some odd herbs and spices mixed in here and there to cover up God knows what but I can tell you that there was no revelation. In perhaps a telling incident – I immediately posted the remaining luncheon meat on our local ‘But Nothing’ board on Facebook with absolutely no takers within 24 hours. Mind you – this is the same place that people are giving away half bottles of shampoo they don’t like and pregnancy test kits they no longer need. In summary, I’ve determined that most of these ‘food’ products should be classified as ‘For Emergency Use Only’ and be condemned to stay in their tin coffins for eternity.