ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It started as a wacky story assignment, an exasperated attempt at a fresh and new way to cover the State Fair – and since New Mexico has held the fair every year since 1938, fresh and new is no easy thing.
But that assignment 24 years ago unexpectedly catapulted me to the heights of culinary glory that I had never dreamed of and will likely never reach again.
Yes, folks, you’re looking at the New Mexico State Fair Spam champion of 1995.
Ah, it was such a heady time, my foodie feat covered by all three local TV stations, featured on the front page of The Albuquerque Tribune and carried by the Trib’s numerous sister newspapers around the country. As weird as it sounds, for a little while I was a big deal.
That’s because Spam, in all its porky prowess, is a big deal.
Each year, hundreds of hopefuls compete in state and county fairs for the coveted blue ribbon, $150 ($100 in my day) and the chance to vie nationally for world Spam domination.
Last year’s winner also got a trip to Hawaii, where more Spam is consumed than in any other state.
In my year, the winner received a trip to the paradise that is Minneapolis, home of Hormel Foods, which cans the Spam.
But breaking news! This year, the Spam contest has been canned. There will be no blue ribbon, no trip, no glory.
“Hormel Foods decided to pull the competition earlier this year, but they specified that it was not due to any action taken by the New Mexico State Fair,” said Wyndham Kemsley, public information officer for the fair. “We would have been happy to host a more independent Spam competition, but we simply did not have enough time to pull it off for this year’s event after Hormel informed us that they were no longer sponsoring it.”
Hormel representatives said that the premier potted meat pageant was discontinued this year in its entirety because participation levels have been down overall over the past few years.
“I’m surprised to hear this,” said James Fastle of Albuquerque, who won last year’s Spam crown with his Hawaiian Haystacks, a festive melange of Spam, sweet and sour sauce and rice. “I guess I’m like the forever champion.”
Not so fast, Fastle.
The Spam contest is – was – one of the most competitive events at the fair beyond horse racing and what new deep-fried food item outsells the others.
It’s a science for some, a curiosity for others, a religion, an obsession, a dream.
For Fastle, it was a whim.
“I’ve never done a food competition or a Spam competition before,” he said. “And I don’t think I’d ever do it again, even if I could.”
For me, it was a story assignment. But as I worked on perfecting my recipe, something changed. I became driven, a cook obsessed. Or maybe I was just dizzy from the dramatic rise in sodium intake caused by ingesting so much salty meat.
Becoming a canned meat queen is hard, and not just because of the potential for hardened arteries. For one thing, everything that can be done with Spam has been done. There’s Spambalaya, Spam a la King, Spam fajitas, Spam puffs, Spam strudel, Spam nachos, Spam musubi, Spam sushi, Spam chowder, Spam cheesecake. You get the idea.
For another, Spam isn’t a particularly attractive ingredient. Nothing kills the appetite like a mottled blob reminiscent of tongue, taffy and the rash on an old man’s belly.
The secret, then, is to creatively hide the Spam while not hiding its umami.
So I created Spamikopita, a Greek-inspired dish that immerses the pink meat chunks in a bed of spinach and feta and conceals it all under filo dough – or, in my case, puff pastry when the stores run out of filo the night before the competition.
And what do you know, that dish bested 37 other entries, including a curious creation of Spam wedges, green olives and pineapple entombed in lemon gelatin called Sun of Spam.
It beat out Gladys Cole’s second-place Hot and Spicy Spam Balls and the third-place Spamtons whipped up by Mary Driscoll, who wore earrings made of tiny Spam labels that day.
Years later, Driscoll still rocks the Spam earrings and is a Facebook friend.
Alas, Spam won’t rock this year’s State Fair, and maybe that’s just the way of things. In 1995, there were 70 fairs across the country with Spam contests; last year, there were 26.
Still, there is hope. Fair spokesman Kemsley said a Spam contest could return next year, because it’s such a fan favorite.
Maybe that will be a wacky assignment for some new reporter to tackle.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.