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Paul Dean

Sentimental Favorite? It's Spam Chili

October 24, 1987|Paul Dean

The West's wildest "juanfoolery," a day of hangovers and heartburn, an orgy of dust and Tecate, will see perfectly good meat and tomatoes reduced to rust-red, "globbery" vittles at Sunday's World Championship Chili Cookoff at the Tropico Gold Mine near Rosamond.

And you can bet two bits against a gallon of Pepto-Bismol (a co-sponsor of this year's contest) that the 75 cooks in this 21st annual simmering will again be using the full series of secret ingredients.

An Australian team has threatened to stew kangaroo meat in Foster's ale strained through Crocodile Dundee's hat. There will be armadillo chorizo for one Texas brew. Scandinavians like to add a splash of aquavit. A Navajo has used powdered snake rattles. A Frenchman once prepared a bouquet garni of peanut butter and goat cheese dipped in Jack Daniels.

For this year's event, in a sterling tribute to the 50th anniversary of the meat, Ormly Gumfudgin of La Crescenta has exhumed his Spam chili.

"As soon as I heard of the anniversary, I dug into World War II files for my Spam chili recipe," said Gumfudgin, the International Chili Society's 64-year-old historian. He long ago gave up trying to remember who he used to be. "I think I was Stan Locke, a handsome fellow but rather dull . . . back to Spam chili.

"I use the basic recipe of onion, tomato and the Spam, plus cumin, oregano and cardamom, an Asian spice that's related to the ginger family. I last made Spam chili when I was a prisoner of the Japanese.

"They immediately saw to it that I escaped."

No person who knew or felt World War II at any age, from any view, can forget Spam. Concocted in 1937 by Jay Hormel, son of the founder of Geo. A. Hormel & Co., Spam (a contraction of "spiced ham") has survived Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's criticism and a Monty Python sketch and remains an American pantry staple.

It is famous or infamous. There is no middle ground.

I love Spam. Fried Spam. Spam and eggs. Diced in an omelette. Spam on a shingle. Spam on a toothpick, cubed into a lazy man's canape for dunking in A-1 sauce when television is too good to leave.

Nothing matches that ham-lamb-veal-and-pink-pate surrounded by a squelchy jelly of ersatz aspic.

It's a Proustian sense-memory thing with me.

I smell, taste and see Spam and memory snaps back to being a sixth-grader in London, England. That was during World War II when the Luftwaffe was hellbent on seeing that I didn't make it into the seventh grade.

We received Spam from the United States in those bountiful, beautiful, wonderful Bundles for Britain. It was our break from whale meat and sausages (the ubiquitous banger) that were more bread than pork, certainly a change of taste from horse-meat balls and fruitcakes made from mineral oil.

My ingenious mother served Spam fritters, laced it with cod to concoct a crude and crumbly Spam fish cake . . . and with the rationing of meat and a national glut of organ foods (our dog grew broad on his daily diet of boiled tripe) my dear mum rewrote a British culinary tradition and created Spam and kidney pie.

God Save the King and F.D.R. in those days. For dried eggs. For powdered milk. For chocolate and lemonade powders. For splendid, spanking, splotchy, spirited, sparkling, spicy, spunky and spellbinding Spam.

I even kept an empty Spam can as a souvenir (it held pencils) because it was from America and she was glamorous and safe and all things luxurious and one day I'd go there to live.

I'd tell you what I still remember from smelling a pack of Chesterfields, touching a Coke bottle, seeing a Superman comic, tasting a Hershey bar or hearing a 1942 Ford or the clank of a Zippo lighter. But that's another saga. . . .

World Championship Chili Cookoff, Sunday, at the Tropico Gold Mine, Rosamond, 10 miles east of Lancaster, (805) 256-3123. Gates open 10 a.m. Adults $7, children $3, to benefit High Desert Kiwanis and Lancaster Chamber of Commerce.

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