When my sisters and I were girls, my dad would try to trick us into eating Spam. He would cleverly try to slip it into something that cloaked its bright pink hue like, say, an omelet. But the pink chunks were not the biggest giveaway that something was awry, it was that devilish look on my dad’s face, watching with just a tad too much relish as I suspiciously poked at the mysterious omelet. In my family you should never, never relax and dig in if someone is giving you that look (just ask me about the pickle juice incident if you need further proof). The question that I have looking back is: where did I get this spam-hating bias from? Why did I already think that spam was something to look down my little nose at, and my dad thought spam was a perfectly edible, if a bit nostalgic* food?
The New York Times article about Spam in this week’s dining section seemed like just the inspiration I needed to delve into a subject which has been on my mind since starting this blog– that is the fickle nature of food snobbery. It is (obviously) nothing new that the type of food you eat/like/have access to can be a potent status symbol. And it’s also nothing new that people often want to emulate the styles of the upper classes. So: not so surprising then, that in the last– say– ten year eruption of food magazines, television and blogs there has emerged a food lexicon that permits almost no mention of cost. It is as if everyone has unlimited food budgets. The only times that I can recall seeing cost mentioned in a piece of food writing are to exalt the qualities of some exotic and expensive ingredient like kobe beef or saffron. I, for one, think that leaves contemporary food writing missing a very important point.
Food products can be evaluated entirely separately on different criteria: cost and taste. It is the status symbol territory that conflates the two, and often in a very flimsy way. There are gads of historical examples where one particular food item, due to its exclusivity, carried a high social status and once the economic factors shifted and that food product became cheaper, it’s reputation plummeted. Take black pepper: in the early middle ages when pepper was hard to come by, it was prized as a seasoning. As pepper became cheaper, it was seen as an inferior seasoning– used only if you could not afford the “better” spices. The cheap, everyday oranges and bananas in lunchboxes across America were exotic luxuries to colonial Americans. Oh, and a sad inverse example: truffles in ancient Rome were apparently cheap and plentiful enough that even households of modest means could use them with abandon. The formula seems to be rareness equals exclusiveness equals desirability. And as far as I can see, all of that has only a tenuous (if any) relation to taste.
And this brings me to confit- what is now considered a very fancy, exclusive delicacy was once a way to –ahem– cheaply preserve meat from the autumn slaughter through the winter. Meat (mostly fowl now, but by all accounts preserving ham in this manner goes back even farther) is salted, slowly cooked in fat, dried and then immersed in fat for storage. With the addition of a few preservatives (yes, nitrite is traditional) the meat would then keep for several months, eventually developing an ever-so-slight rancidity which, I am assured, is part of its charm. Have you figured out where I’m going with this?- cheap meat, preserved with salt and nitrite with a unique “acquired taste”, looked down upon by food snobs… not so different from the decidedly proletariat cans of Spam. Now, let me say, I am not arguing that there is no qualitative difference between Spam and confit (there are definitely unique chemical changes that happen to meat when preserved as a confit), but I think that it is a good illustration of how the perfume of exclusivity sways the way that we talk, write and think about food.
What I’m trying to do with my recipes for this blog is provide a ratio: taste as a function of value. While I’m not going to start cracking open a can of spam any time soon (neither will I be eating confit, incidentally), I’m glad that other people are doing so in a spirit of exploration; making something beautiful out of something downmarket. This type of creative reexamining of cheap, maligned foods is good for everyone. So, Dad, it’s a few years late, but I hereby raise my glass in salute to the strange canned, pink meat of your boyhood: Spam.
*I know that my dad is not alone in his nostalgia for the tinned boyscout fare of his childhood. In fact, I was intrigued to learn that Korean baby boomers have a huge nostalgia for spam (just look for the kimbap rolls in your local Korean restaurant, they might just have little slices of spam tucked in).