The vanishing decorated Spam

My grandparents raised their family during the Depression on a very small, intensely cultivated “farm” in Garden Villa. The name bespeaks opulence, but we are talking $800 soggy plots outside Houston. They didn’t go hungry but opulence there wasn’t. Another crimp on consumption was my grandparents’ iron practice of saving 10% of every dollar they made.

Which leads to the tale of the vanishing decorated Spam and its struggle for Italian renaissance. My grandparents kept chickens, a pig and a couple cows but sold all they could of the meat, eggs, and milk. Not much home-grown or store-bought meat made it to the table. Hence, Spam for moderately special occasions. My grandmother embellished the little brick with pineapple slices, maraschino cherries and whatever else could be stuck on with toothpicks or gelatin to make a brightly colored confection, a jewel of processed meat and canned fruit.

On this occasion, the decorated Spam was in its finished glory when the telephone rang in the living room. My grandmother answered the phone, returned to the kitchen and . . . the Spam was gone. You may be thinking Spam Thief, but no, there was a dog outside, keenly tuned for intruders. Highly motivated, the entire family of 5 searched the tiny house. No Spam, nowhere. No meat for dinner, with the overhanging nagging mystery (curse?) of the vanished Spam.

Weeks and weeks later, preparing for the rare occasion of guests, my grandmother opened the linen drawer by the telephone, and there was the patiently waiting decorated Spam. Apparently the drawer had been opened when she answered the phone. She’d absently set the Spam down, closed the drawer, and there it sat in splendid isolation but no longer edible even by the thrifty, waste-not-want-not family.

In the lean early years of my life, my mother often served Spam. Plain, fried or decorated, I couldn’t stand it. Part of my determination to grow out of “Pam” to “Pamela” was partly motivated by distancing myself from Spam.

Years later, in the Bay Area, I’d just met a charming Italian physicist I’d presently marry. We were talking about food and I expounded on the unredeemable badness of Spam. I thought I was convincing only to discover that I’d thrown down a gauntlet. Instead of the more intimate pleasures I had in mind, we walked down to a grocery store for Spam so Maurizio could prove it could be redeemed by Italian culinary arts.

We brought our little can home, he opened it carefully, said nothing about the smell, but set out to meticulously mince garlic, chop rosemary, slice the Spam with scientific precision, and sauté all in good olive oil until the slabs were nicely crusted. “See?” every action declared. “The Renaissance of Spam.”

Presentation counts. Hence, placemat, plate, napkin, knife, fork, Spam slab crowned with rosemary sprigs. The small piece delicately cut, appraising sniff, the thoughtful chew for the full bouquet of animal parts. The careful swallow. The distinctive aftertaste. “You’re right,” Maurizio said. “There’s nothing to be done.” Who wouldn’t love a man who’d dream the Impossible Dream, and accept the inevitable with easy grace?

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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4 comments on “The vanishing decorated Spam
  1. Anonymous says:

    A running joke in our family: my youngest brother’s “invention” of the Spam Casserole – you don’t want to know the recipe!

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  2. Iosifina says:

    Those of us in a certain age each have a Spam history. Mine involves a wonderful recipe my mother made of Mexican Spaghetti that includes cubed Spam sprinkled generously with paprika (disguise?) sauteed with chopped onion and bell pepper, a can of tomatoes, cooked spaghetti and lots of shredded cheese all baked in a lovely casserole. Oh yeah, and some peas (my mother believed in color) thrown in, too. Last year we were at a dinner in Greece with friends from Germany, Austria, Greece, and England. When the topic of Spam came up, they all had stories of how their mothers made the best Spam fritters, fried Spam and eggs, sliced Spam on white bread….Our little cans of donated Spam kept many Europeans alive after WWII.

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  3. Betty Pagett says:

    Thanks for the memories, I had spam once, in India when a missionary invited me to her apartment at the college for my special birthday dinner, a can of spam she had saved!
    And as to the lost can, my family always said, “it us with the can of beets” when anything was lost.

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  4. Lucetta Muth says:

    Love this story. As a little girl one of the men who worked for my dad would bring cubed Spam in his lunch…I should mention, he was a WWII veteran. It was such a treat to sit and share his lunch where he would share a bit of Spam, that he called, “bully beef,” and maybe a cookie, or two. I still eat Spam. We had it just last week, fried with eggs.

    Like

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