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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Author finally visits Spam country

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Author Carolyn Wyman will do a signing for her spam book in Hawai'i May 18.

"Spam: A Biography"

Talk and book signing with Carolyn Wyman. 7 p.m. May 18.

Barnes & Noble.

Kahala Mall. Free. 737-3323

Two years after her ode to Spam was published, Carolyn Wyman is finally making her first visit to the epicenter of that celebrated luncheon meat. And although she's happy to be doing a book signing here May 18 (see box), that's not the primary attraction.

In Hawai'i, she said, "I can speak freely of my love of Spam," Wyman said in a phone interview from her Middleton, Conn., home. "The idea of being able to sit out in a restaurant and eat Spam in public, well, that's just wonderful."

Sam Choy, better set out an extra plate for Wyman, author of "Spam: A Biography" (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1999, $15, paperback). The 44-year-old writer, who pens a syndicated column on new food products, grew up in Cumberland, R.I., on "every processed food known to man."

Spam was a particular favorite of her father's, she said.

"My dad was in World War II, stationed in the Philippines," she said. "That's where he started eating it. A lot of them were like, they never wanted to eat it again. But there were others like my dad — the majority, really — who found it was a taste they couldn't shake."

Her mother ("the convenience-food queen") was only too happy to support his habit. Wyman ate Spam straight, most of the time, or in Wonder Bread sandwiches, loaded with mayo. The serendipitous discovery that it tasted even better fried came later.

"One of my favorite dishes is Spam-baked-beans-pineapple casserole," she said. "It's a perfect combination in terms of texture and flavor.

"You have the meaty ballast of the beans," she continued ecstatically, "the salty hamminess of the Spam and the sweetness of the pineapple. They taste terrific together ... and it requires no cooking ability. It just requires you know how to open a can."

The book took about a year of research, and the circuitous process of bringing a manuscript to birth as a book was prodded along by an editor (Diane Sterling) with a special devotion to her mission: She is a native of Austin, Minn., the birthplace of Spam.

"Spam: A Biography" supplies enough vintage photos, graphics and cartoons, including those from old advertising campaigns, to steer the reader toward the right (humorous) frame of mind.

It is an actual historical treatise, despite outward appearances, with a fascinating account of how Jay Hormel revolutionized his family meat-packing business. Hormel introduced the world to canned ham, even before Spam emerged as a way of using up the scraps profitably.

The 135-page account is broken into brief informational tidbits covering everything from the infamous Spam haiku archive on the Internet (pemtropics.mit.edu/~ jcho/spam) to the story and complete text of the equally infamous Spam sketch from "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

And where else can you read the backstory of how "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" engaged in one of the most mutually supportive partnerships in advertising history? There's a photo of the comedy duo posing with a mascot pig named Spammy.

Wyman is regarding the Hawai'i appearance as her last public hurrah for her Spam-ography before she has to turn her attention to her next book (about Jell-O), due out this fall.

She had hoped to come sooner after its '99 publication, but the publisher decided to send her instead to Austin, "the only other place in the country where you can go to a restaurant and eat Spam in public."

Wyman enjoyed her time there, listening to the town's a capella singing group, the Spamettes, warble on about the luncheon meat, but she regretted having to haul her car out of the snow bank and having to invest in long underwear.

She prefers the other climactic extreme of the Islands, where she and her husband plan a vacation of cycling and general relaxation. Spam seems to do well in places that run hot or cold, she said.

There's a whole book section devoted to the local Spam love affair: Hawai'i's annual per-capita consumption of the meat product is three pounds, highest on the planet.

"When I met with some of the Hormel executives, one of them (Richard Crane) told me there are three factors that determine how popular Spam will be," she said. "Extremes in weather, a love of pork and a former or current high military presence. And Hawai'i has all three.

"Of course," she added, "you could just plainly say that Hawaiians have great taste I mean, that's what I would say."

• • •

Some simple Spam recipes

You don't need to know how to cook to prepare Spam, said author Carolyn Wyman, but Spam recipes abound anyway.

"Spam: A Biography" includes several, including one for the Isle classic Spam musubi; Wyman credits it as an adaptation of the version appearing in "Hawaii's Spam Cookbook" by Ann Kondo Corum.

But don't forget: Spam is popular elsewhere in the world as part of other cuisines and although enjoying Spam is something of a guilty, secret pleasure most places, Wyman proudly prints these recipes, too.

Spam Musubi

  • 1 (12-ounce) can of Spam
  • Cooked rice
  • Nori (dried seaweed sheets)
  • Ume (Japanese pickled plum)

Cut Spam into quarter-inch-thick rectangular slices and pan fry until brown.

Shaped cooked rice into blocks the length and width of the Spam slices and about three-quarter-inch thick.

A plastic musubi maker will help you with this. If not, pack the rice in the empty Spam can and then unmold it. Be careful, though, not to cut yourself on the sharp edges of the can.

Spread some ume on one side of the rice and top with a slice of Spam. Cut nori into strips about an inch wide and long enough to wrap around the Spam-rice block widthwise. Lay Spam-rice block on top of one strip of nori, wrap and eat.

• • •

Now a time-honored classic, this recipe for the clove-studded baked Spam pictured on the can until 1997 appeared in some of the earliest Spam ads.

Baked Spam

  • 1 (12-ounce) can of Spam
  • Whole cloves
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • 1 teaspoon prepared mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon vinegar

Place Spam on rack in shallow baking pan; score surface and stud with cloves.

In small bowl, combine brown sugar, water, mustard and vinegar, stirring until smooth. Brush glaze over Spam.

Bake 20 minutes at 375 degrees, basting often. Cut into slices. Serves six.