I always travel with a can of Spam. Not because I’m worried I’ll end up stranded somewhere and have nothing to eat but because I find it interesting to give it to chefs and see what they make of it. Literally. But I only give it to chefs who have no idea what it is. Like the sushi chef in Miami who transformed it into tonkatsu, giving it a nice crunchy texture. Or the young chef at the Hacienda del Carmen, near Lake Chapal in Mexico, who wrapped it inside corn meal and steamed it in a banana leaf.
So yesterday, as I was licking the spicy jerk drippings off my fingers, I asked chef Ricardo Stewart if he’d ever heard of Spam. “Sure I have,” he said, “but I’ve never been there.”
Seems Ricardo thought I said Spain.
Not Spain, I said. Spam.
He looked at me like perhaps I’d had too many Red Stripes. Which perhaps I had.
Now the trick at this point is to not try and explain what Spam is (if that’s even possible). You just want to give it to them. And let them take it from there. So I ran back to my room and came back with my little blue can and handed it over to him. “See if you can jerk this,” I said.
Ricardo opened up the can last night and told me he had his doubts. “I couldn’t figure out what it was,” he told me this afternoon when I showed up for lunch. “Even after I read what was on the can.”
But he marinated thick slices of the mystery meat in his secret jerk marinade and when I showed up this afternoon, he put them over a very low fire and let them plump up while being infused with smoky flavor from the pimento wood.
When they were done, he brought me a couple of slices along with some breadfruit, roasted yams, and a Ting, a local grapefruit soft drink. There were a few other people sitting on the wooden benches at the bar and I told Ricardo to go ahead and slice up the rest of the jerked Spam and offer them some as well. He shook his head as if he wasn’t too sure of this but did it anyway.
Then we all tore off little pieces of the jerked Spam and tried it. “This is the best Spam I’ve had in 20 years,” said the guy sitting next to me, a criminal attorney from New York City. A couple from Virginia next to him said they liked it even better than the jerked pork they’d been eating. Even Ricardo, who still had no idea what Spam was, thought it was pretty damn tasty.
“If it was up to me,” he said, “I’d put it on the menu tomorrow. If I could get it.”
So who knows? Before long, the Ritz-Carlton jerk centre and even Scotchies may be offering jerk Spam in addition to their succulent pork and chicken offerings. And Jamaica will have me to thank.
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