xoFood: Spam, the Next Cool Food
A few years ago, when I informed my mainland friends that I was moving to Hawai'i everybody at one point or another told me to learn to like Spam.
"It's everywhere, they practically eat it with every meal" -- I heard over and over again.
Not wanting to fly off to my new island home bogged down by cultural stereotypes, I laughed it off and figured that while I'd probably encounter Spam more often in Hawai'i than I did in LA, it wouldn't quite be the dietary mainstay my friends made it out to be. But like my pronunciation of Kalaniana'ole, I was quite wrong. Spam really is everywhere.
Going to breakfast? Try a Spam scramble or Spam and eggs. Don't want your Spam in your eggs? No problem, just get a side of Spam fried rice. Want to grab a quick lunch on the go? Stop by your local 7-11 and pick up some Spam sushi AKA "musubi," or maybe even a Spam hand roll (pieces of Spam rolled up in sticky rice, then rolled up again in seaweed). And though at first I gave all the 7-11 Spam offerings the side eye, I quickly learned that 7-11 musubi are not only an O'ahu favorite, but are often voted "Best of" in various local periodicals.
7-11 even caters here. (Well, they make platters, but does YOUR 7-11 do that?)
All but the natural, crunchy grocery stores carry some form of Spam. I've even seen a vegan "Spam" knock-off at one such store. And if you get tired of regular old Spam classic or even "low sodium" Spam, don't you fret! There's Jalapeño Spam, Black Pepper Spam, Spam with Bacon, Teriyaki Spam, Hot and Spicy Spam, and many, many more. I'm not sure if all the stores on the mainland carry such varieties of Spam, but when I stood in front of my Safeway's "wall 'o' Spam" I was humbled and a little overwhelmed.
Spam burgers, Spam casseroles, Pineapple Upside-Down Spam Cake (it's real) -- laugh if you like, but Hawai'i unapologetically loves Spam, and I kind of love Hawai'i for that.
For generations, locals have been transforming "spiced ham" from a World War II necessity to the most creative and comfy of comfort foods. I don't eat it myself, but I whole heartedly defend any person's comfort food of choice.
So I had a little giggle when I found out that New York Sushi Ko was giving Spam a "comeback." I know on the mainland it's usually not a favorite, but in Hawai'i it never went anywhere.
And not only is John Daley, head chef of New York Sushi Ko, bringing back Spam, he's including Spam sushi as part of his $150 tasting menu. "Oh COME ON!" I snorted when I read that. I mean, we're talking SPAM here. Spiced, canned, ham that will survive a nuclear apocalypse. It's around $2.79 a can here, probably less on the mainland, and you can buy one Spam musubi (by the way, Daily Mail, it's "MUSUBI" not "musabi") for around $1.55 or less around the island. It's SPAM. Daley didn't forage it from the deepest parts of the endangered Spam Jungle. Special Spam-seeking hogs didn't dig the Spam out of the mossy Spiced Ham Forest floor (though I guess we do have pigs to thank for Spam). Spam is Spam is Spam.
Though apparently Spam sushi is catching on amongst savvy food eaters in New York. Mike Briones of Suzume in Brooklyn, serves Spam musubi for $3.50 per salty treat. That's one slab of Spam on rice and seaweed for more than the can is worth. In case you're keeping count.
King Noodle in Bushwick, and Onomea in Williamsburg both serve Spam fried rice. Maharlika in the East Village serves sliced Spam deep fried into "Spam fries." Regarding the taste of the Spam in New York Sushi Ko's Spam fried rice, one diner called it "so good," "savory," and a "little bit [like] oxtail." (Oxtail, another peasant food gone gourmet.)
I understand that if you're from anywhere in the USA outside of Hawai'i, showcasing Spam in this way is a novelty, a way to repurpose an often thought of "nasty" food as palatable, even chic. But I can't help but see the absurdity in it. I see no difference between the fancy Spam sushi at Sushi Ko, and the "working man's" musubi at 7-11 here in Hawai'i.
And really, that's the bottom line to me. It is sort of the American version of "peasant" food. Spam is an affordable, processed food, that is easy to get, easy to keep, and easy to cook. You can buy it in gas stations. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with any of this, but why do we have to slap lipstick on the pig?
But I guess that's how trends go -- from cheeseburgers to mac 'n' cheese to donuts, I suppose everything has it's day to be a delicacy. Apparently it's Spam's turn now, and Hawai'i gets the last laugh.
Do you like Spam? Are there any cheap foods gone trendy that you find ridiculous?