Pairing Off: Spam

The classic 1949 film Battleground ranks as one of the best not only because Ricardo Montalban (or his character, anyway) freezes to death. There's also a scene appropriate to this week's Pairing Off.

It lasts just a few seconds, but says everything one needs to know about America's relationship with Spam. As survivors of the 101st Airborne's epic stand at Bastogne--Van Johnson, James Whitmore, John Hodiak and their comrades--rush around gathering supplies finally airdropped in, two troopers rip open a container, only to find boxes of the slippery pink pork brick. Although they've been surviving on scraps and lemonade powder, the pair look at the Spam for a moment.

Then they turn away in disgust.

Of course, that's pretty much the reaction I expected when I asked the experts for a wine to go along with the processed meat product.

After all, this is Spam we're talking about: Pink as cat food, resilient as dessicated human flesh, salty as the Bonneville flats--a medley of flavors and textures just about everyone outside of Hawaii or Talladega scorns.

"Good luck with that," says Clint Barrett of Goody Goody on Oak Lawn when I approach. "What goes with greasy, salty food," he then pretends to ponder. "Some sort of Pearl beer, perhaps?"

So I hit up Neal Caldwell at Pogo's with the same "what do you think of Spam" question.

"Personally, not much," he responds.

Who can blame them? Spam is a singularly disturbing product, as indestructable and versatile as Velveeta, but without the few redeeming qualities. Oh, there are some uses for the beast in a can, such as covering slices with pineapple, disguising fried pieces in a cheap omelet or mixing it with polenta. But presumably you haven't tried it in quite some time, so allow me to refresh your memory.

Imagine globs of pressed pig held together by slick fat so fine as to be imperceptible to the naked eye (other than as a thin film), yet so pervasive the meat separates on your tongue. This creates a very strange, not quite flaky sensation. And what follows across your palate reeks of heavily salted fish. Salmon, to be precise.

Bad salmon, that is.

"That's a pork-based product," explains Paul Burrough of Sacred Cellars, being careful not to call the stuff pork. "I would go with Pinot--or maybe a big rose."

Interesting. A pink wine for pastel pink meat product. And the general consensus began leaning that way.

"Sauvignon Blanc," Barrett suggests. "Or...you could do a dry rose, something from Cab."

Only Caldwell demurred, calling instead for a ruby port, something with enough clout to beat down the nuclear catastrophe-resistant pate. And he's probably right, but how could I resist a dinner of Spam and pink wine...privately, of course.

Interestingly, my cat pounced up at the sound of a tin opening and seemed intrigued by its contents. But she quickly retreated after a whiff of the Waterstone 2006 rose of Cabernet Sauvignon. Admittedly, the wine was slightly corked. A resemblance to strawberries and a little tingle of acidity survived, however--although perhaps some depth was lost to the slip of rank must.

Despite the slight fault in this bottle, the wine begins pluckily, attempting to erase that nasty Spam residue. But rose simply isn't manly enough for the task. Its acidity tussles--and seems to win, for a moment. Then the fat and salt reassert their authority.

Hey, Spam lasts for a long, long time. Caldwell really is right: you need something to completely obliterate the meat, to wash away the aftermath of each bite.

But I wouldn't waste port on this project. Maybe a bottle of MD 20/20.

OK, so for the first time, a common dish beat the wine. You can't blame the experts for this--none had tried Spam in decades. No, blame Hormel for making such a tough, resilient, long lasting product.

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