The SPAMpionship is the wildest cooking competition at the NC State Fair

Judge Paulette Gaither, right, said she had been converted to “SPAMism” during the Great American SPAM Competition on Saturday at the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh.
Judge Paulette Gaither, right, said she had been converted to “SPAMism” during the Great American SPAM Competition on Saturday at the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh. jdjackson@newsobserver.com

Pam Cash left Franklin County at 10 minutes till 10 o’clock Saturday morning on her way to the Great American SPAM Competition at the North Carolina State Fair. Entries were due at 10 a.m.

“There’s still a neon streak on Main Street in Youngsville that a bloodhound could catch me on now – a hot trail,” Cash said. She brought with her three entries, though she could enter only one, an appetizer, entree and dessert, all made with SPAM, the illustrious American mystery meat in a can. She settled on her entree, Szechuan SPAM with coconut and pineapple rice, served in coconut halves and garnished with a whole pineapple. The other two she offered to passers-by, converting SPAM-phobics along the way, and complimented its shelf life, malleability and economy.

“And also, my name is Pam,” she said. “So anytime Pam touches SPAM, it’s familiar territory.”

At a state fair famous for its deep-fried creations and culinary acrobatics of fried Twinkies and Jell-O and Cheeto-dusted street corn, SPAM may be the hardest sell. But the fair’s annual cooking competition, whose winner last year went on to be the national champion, is likely the most compelling entry point to the world of SPAM.

Like collards or cabbage, chicken hearts or tripe, the measure of a cook is in what he or she can do with the foods of low regard, the ability to take something cheap or forgotten and transform it into something objectively delicious. The SPAMpionship did not disappoint. There were 22 entries, from a SPAM banh mi to a savory SPAM pie, dips, puddings, SPAM baked and fried.

“You know what, SPAM has a stigma, so creating recipes that challenge that is really a goal,” said Domino Ireland of Raleigh, who once placed second in the SPAM competition with “SPAManadas,” and this year entered a cheese and SPAM dip molded into the shape of a football. “I say, ‘Trust me, I can make it in a way that you’ll be crazy about it, you won’t believe this is SPAM.’ I like to cut it into smaller bits, sear it, that makes it awesome and really brings out the oils and flavors and what not.”

Gail Byars also made a SPAM dip and was inspired to enter the competition after fond childhood memories.

“I had SPAM as a child and when I saw the contest on the N.C. State website, I thought it was kind of funny and said you know what, I’ll go for it,” Byars said. “Me and my dad always got SPAM, cut it up, fried it up, then ate it between bread with mustard. That’s the way I always grew up eating it.”

She also feels there’s a SPAM stigma but suggested it might be mostly psychological.

“I got it past (my husband) and a group of people at my church; I didn’t tell them it was SPAM,” Byars said. “And they tasted it and said, ‘Oh this is pretty good, I like this, why don’t you make it more often.’ 

A panel of six judges made up of cooking teachers, food writers and former chefs tasted each entry and awarded points based on taste, the use of SPAM, presentation and how easy the recipe is to make. Most entries seemed to surpass their expectations, whatever those might have been.

“This is exceptional,” said judge Paulette Gaither, a first-time SPAM eater. “I’m now converted into SPAMism.”

The winner was ominously titled “Funeral Sandwiches,” a version of the beloved and ubiquitous ham rolls that are likely to grace any potluck table of the bereaved. Gail Fuller, who made them, sliced a pack of King’s Hawaiian rolls in half, layered one side with Swiss cheese and thinly sliced low-sodium SPAM, and then covered them in a sauce of Worcestershire, mustard, butter and spices before putting them in the oven. The judges suggested the titled should be changed to “Heaven Rolls.”

The presentation showstopper was Italian Parmesan SPAM fries, served in the empty iconic blue can.

Keith and Leslie Henn of Yadkinville tried every SPAM on the market in making their third place-winning Chicken and Waffles Cordon Bleu, finally settling on the hickory-smoked variety.

“It has hickory-smoked SPAM in it, which is the only one that could stand up to all the addition,” Keith said. “SPAM can be very playful.”

Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson