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MORE BAM FROM THE SPAM; NO MATTER HOW YOU SLICE IT, IT'S UNDERRATED, SAY COOKS AT FAIR.

Byline: Cecilia Chan Staff Writer

Spam may have the unsavory reputation as a canned mystery meat with the shelf life of a rock.

But for Spam connoisseurs, the luncheon meat is a gourmet dish waiting to happen as they test their culinary skills today in the fourth annual National Best Spam Recipe Competition at the Ventura County Fair.

``Spam isn't treated fairly in a way because people think of it as fat,'' said Maria Hagman of Thousand Oaks who took first place in the 1996 contest. ``But in the way I did it with proper spices, it was fantastic.''

Hagman won over the judge's taste buds three years ago with a Spam'scargot appetizer. The concoction of chopped pork shoulder and ham was seasoned with ingredients including shallots, bread crumbs, garlic and butter, and stuffed into puff pastry and escargot shells.

``I worked it out from a family recipe for escargot,'' said Hagman, who borrowed from her French roots. ``I adjusted it, and it was actually very good.''

Hagman, who tries to raise the sophistication level of the much-maligned meat, has whipped up other dishes such as Chinese chicken salad with Spam and chicken. She will try her hand in this year's contest but is guarding how she will prepare her mouthwatering delicacy. On Thursday night, she prepared two Spam recipes for her family to sample and vote on, with the winning dish to be entered in today's contest.

Last year's contest attracted 18 contestants who competed not only for a blue ribbon and $150 prize money but the chance to have their recipes compete against that of other fair winners from around the country.

Hormel Foods Corp., which makes the processed meat, picks the winner, who receives a trip for two to Minneapolis, near company headquarters, and a $2,500 shopping spree at the Mall of America.

``I think this contest draws the most interesting entries by virtue of what it is,'' said Phyllis Kidd, contest coordinator. Kidd successfully negotiated with Hormel to bring the contest to the Ventura fairgrounds. In prior years, the only other nearby venue was in Los Angeles.

Over the years, Kidd has seen contestants enter goodies including Spam-zucchini bread, corn chowder soup with Spam, shrimp with Spam, and Spam-anana split - three frozen scoops of Spam in a banana split dish, topped off with all the confectionary fixings.

Although Spam shares the same status as fruit cake when it comes to fodder for jokes, it is ``still the No. 1 meat food item in several parts of the world,'' Kidd said.

``In 13 countries, it's No. 1 because it doesn't take refrigeration and people can go quite a ways with 12 ounces,'' she said. ``It's a huge seller in places like Hawaii, Alaska, Arkansas, Texas and Alabama.

``People don't think of Spam the way they should. People relate it to, I think, essentially of being poor and being a mixture of stuff they don't know what it is.''

Hormel introduced the canned pink meat coated in a gelatinous mass in 1937 as spiced ham. Later a contest entry rechristened the product Spam.

The product gained ground during World War II, when millions of pounds of the nonperishable stuff was shipped overseas to Russian, European and American troops.

A staple for servicemen in the battlefield, Spam nowadays is something to think about when packing supplies for an emergency. Given its 10-year shelf life and ability to ward off food-borne illnesses, Hagman has packed a few cans into her Y2K kit at home.

Hormel Foods produces 435 cans of Spam per minute, selling more than 100 million cans to American consumers in 1997, according to the company's Web site.

Some 60 million Americans eat Spam at a rate of 3.6 cans per second, which is equivalent to 216 cans per minute or 12,960 per hour, the Web site said. The Republic of South Korea is the largest market for Spam outside of the United States, followed closely by the United Kingdom.

For the health-conscious, Hormel also offers a low-sodium, low-fat Spam.

Spam reached respectability in 1998 when the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian accepted two original cans to its permanent collection.

Kidd said given the popularity of burrito-like wraps stuffed with sandwich foods, she wouldn't be surprised to see a Spam wrap among this year's entries.

This year's panel of judges include two chefs and a home economist.

Contestants are graded with a score of 40 percent for overall taste, 30 percent for appearance and 30 percent for originality.

``We get these people who are serious,'' she said. ``It's a big deal to win a Spam contest if you are into Spam.''

Fair facts

The 1999 Ventura County Fair will run from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. through Sunday at Seaside Park, Harbor Boulevard and Figueroa Street in Ventura.

Admission is $6 for adults; $3 for seniors age 55 and over; $3 for children ages 6-12; and children 5 and under are free.

Off-site parking is available with free shuttle service at the following locations: San Buenaventura State Beach ($5), Ventura County Government Center, Buenaventura Mall, Ventura High School and at the corner of Harbor Boulevard and Schooner.

For information, call (805) 648-3376 or log on to www.seasidepark.org.

All entertainment is free with fair admission.

Grandstand entertainment

7 p.m. Today: PRCA Rodeo.

Exhibits

Today: Ventura County Museum of History & Art

Contests and competitions

3 p.m. Today: National Spam Competition, no entry fee, pre-entry required. 7 p.m.: Karaoke Contest, entry fee $4.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 13, 1999
Words:925
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