Calling Spam the “pinnacle of culinary achievement” not only applies the lipstick to the pig, it slathers on the mascara, teases its hair and whitens its teeth.
To say the least, it's a slogan that goes completely over the top.
Yet there it was, leaping right off blue-and-yellow posters advertising the Great American Spam Championship at the 2008 Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem, which opened Oct. 3 and continues through Sunday. The slogan, catchy as it is, proves that the people at Hormel Foods have a sense of humor and an appreciation for hyperbole.
It also smacked the 10 judges for this year's Spam competition right square in the gut, set the tone for last weekend's contest, and teed it up for a slew of bad jokes and wisecracks between the jurists.
True or false? Judging a Spam cook-off is worse than picking the winner at the Hairiest Back contest during Biker Week at Myrtle Beach.
How does a judge best cleanse the palate between tastings? A. Having a few sips of water; B. Eating half a saltine cracker; C. The cracker, followed by water; or D. Swigging 100-proof bourbon.
“When judging for taste, you must detect the ‘savory taste of Spam,'” said Baxter Cromer, a local chef and de facto captain of the team of judges, in quoting from the official rules. “In other words, you have to know the Spam is in there.”
The Spam championship at the Dixie Classic was but one of scores of similar contests held across the country each year. Out of 74 chefs who indicated in advance that they would participate in the adult competition, 29 entries were submitted.
It is pure marketing genius on the part of a company that since 1937 has been selling the mixture of pork shoulder, ham and gelatinous goo that helps the meat slowly shimmy and ooze out of its metal coffin.
About 90 million cans of Spam are sold each year. Health nuts are quick to point out that a 2-ounce serving – a healthy forkful for some of us – contains 180 calories and 16 grams of fat.
“I don't buy it myself,” said John Sherrick, one of the lucky judges. “But it does taste good.”
To underscore his point, Sherrick went on to note that this was the third consecutive year that he's been a judge.
The contest rules are straightforward. No more than 10 ingredients a recipe, the winner has to sit out next year's contest, and contestants had to write a “chef's statement” on why they love Spam.
Judges were asked to award up to 40 points for taste, 30 for presentation and 30 for originality. The Odes to Spam, presumably, were to be considered part of the presentation criteria.
When it came time to actually judge the dishes, the veterans shared a few helpful tips with the rookies.
Don't take a lumberjack's helping – you'll get full before you make it to the end. Sample the ones you liked best a second time. Putting a sombrero on a Mexican-themed dish or a lei on Luau Spam counts as presentation.
“And don't look into the crowd outside the judging area,” Sherrick said.
“The contestants are watching every move you make and trying to interpret them.”
That said, the entries were remarkable, diverse and, for the most part, delicious. There were no reach-for-a-napkin moments. Spam deviled eggs, the aforementioned Hawaiian Spam (the winner) and Spam broccoli pecan salad particularly stood out.
“Let's put it this way,” said winning chef Jeff Whitney when asked how he felt: “I'm not quitting my day job.”