ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — During the New Mexico State Fair’s Spam contest last summer, 9-year-old Michaela Payne took home the blue ribbon in the kids’ division, and her older sister, Maria, placed third. In the adult competition, the girls’ Aunt Janet took first place, their Aunt Karen took second place and their Grandpa Hervie took third.
The family’s Spam roots go back at least to 2005, when Janet won the state contest with her “You’ve Been Spammed” stuffed mushrooms. Since then, the Payne clan has steamed to near-legendary status on the Spam contest circuit, winning 19 Spam contest ribbons.
This year the family reached a new height. Michaela was crowned the national grand prize winner in the kids’ division with her recipe for a breakfast sandwich she calls “Nutty Spam Surprise.”
Sitting around the kitchen table at Hervie and LaVon Payne’s house this week, Michaela told me she doesn’t have any memory of the first time she ventured into the kitchen.
But the adults in the family remember it well. Aunt Janet was making no-bake cookies, and 2-year-old Michaela pulled up a chair and got to work.
“I don’t know who had more powdered sugar on them – her or me,” Janet says.
“Boy,” says LaVon, “this kitchen was one big mess.”
Cooking and baking is a family value going back to LaVon’s mother’s farmstead in the town of House out on the eastern plains – cakes, pies, cornbread, biscuits, cinnamon rolls and pantries filled with canned corn, tomatoes, jams and jellies.
So it was no big deal for Michaela, a fourth-grader at Carlos Rey Elementary, to take the day off school last September and go with her family to the State Fair on the day of the Spam contest.
Under the rules, the entry had to be a sandwich that included at least one can of the iconic meat. Michaela started thinking about her entry and making practice runs for a few weeks before the contest.
“My grandma makes grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Michaela says. “My sister likes French toast. And I thought of peanut butter and apples because I like peanut butter and apples.”
The creation she came up goes like this: Michaela spreads chunky peanut butter on white sandwich bread and layers on thin apple slices and grilled Spam slices, then dips the sandwich in a mixture of whipped eggs, cream, cinnamon and nutmeg and grills it until it’s golden brown. She recommends dipping the French toast-like sandwich in maple syrup.
The melding of salty, porky Spam, nutty peanut butter, crisp apples and sweet syrup – it sounds weird, but the judges at Hormel’s test kitchen found it a winner.
“I’ve not seen the peanut butter-Spam combination done so well,” Cyndi Harles, the public relations person for Spam, told me. “And we’ve been doing the contest since 1990.”
(The 2013 national winner was also from Albuquerque. Caroline Barela Burgess won the grand prize – an all-expenses-paid trip to the Spam Jam in Honolulu – with her recipe for Thai-style Spam meatballs. This is the first time one state has produced back-to-back national winners.)
A box of Spam swag – aprons, T-shirts, a chef’s hat, Spam banks and other goodies – recently came in the mail. But Michaela’s big prize is a check for $2,000.
She’s putting it in her savings account and her parents, Wesley and Teresa, are thinking it’s a good start on a college fund. Michaela thinks she might want to be a paleontologist.
Meanwhile, the Paynes keep cooking. They prefer their Spam cut into chunks and fried up with some potatoes and chile, and they prefer their cakes and pies homemade – never store-bought.
Donna Peck, the superintendent of Home Arts for the New Mexico State Fair, said the Payne clan is what the State Fair’s cooking and baking contests are all about.
“They come with jams and jellies. They bake cakes and pies,” Peck says. “It’s really great to see them work together as a family.”
Michaela says the State Fair ribbons are great, but they don’t compare to pulling up a chair in the kitchen and joining the fun when she hears the pots and pans rattling.
“I like having the memories of the good times we’ve had together baking,” she says.
Nutty Spam Surprise
2 (12-ounce) cans Spam Classic, cut into 8 slices
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
8-16 tablespoons peanut butter, to desired taste
8 slices white sandwich bread
3 apples (peeled, cored and thinly sliced)
Pancake syrup, for dipping
Spray griddle with nonstick cooking spray and heat. Brown sliced Spam Classic in skillet. Set aside. In bowl (large and wide enough to dip a slice of bread) whisk together eggs, cream, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside. Evenly spread peanut butter on one side of each bread slice. Place 2 Spam® Classic slices side-by-side on top of peanut butter on 4 bread slices. Place a layer of apples on 4 of the sandwich halves. Put the sandwich halves together. Dip in egg mixture, coating evenly. Grill until golden brown on both sides. Repeat with remaining sandwiches. Slice and serve with syrup.