With winter full upon us, the urge is to stay warm and comfortable. Nothing satiates my morning hunger than Spam and cold rice. Today, rather than the usual over medium eggs, I poached them. Lightly salted, this was the breakfast of kings.
With the recent blizzard, and G getting a snow day, I thought a chowder would work well in warming us up. Chowder developed in the kitchens of inns and fishing homes of New England and Maritime Canada, and represents a kind of kibbles and bits stew. In that tradition, along with the clams (canned US origin) I added some leftover mashed potato from Alba (a local muy excellent restaurant) and minced Spam in place of bacon. The result was all very comfortable, angioplasty optional.
I was on call and Jen had to leave the house for the evening, leaving me to my fate with regard to dinner. Being the on call surgeon is an exercise in anticipation. I waited like a fire extinguisher hanging in a glass box for that call -a ruptured aortic aneurysm, a cold pulseless limb, trouble in the body’s pipes. I passed the time watching a show from the History Channel about the universe. I fell asleep and woke at 7, way past my usual dinner time.
I walked out in to the family room and made my hungry face -nothing happened. No food. Just silence. I felt existentially as empty as my stomach. Without Jennifer, there was no meal. Just me in a dark box. I sat there for a while chewing on walnuts, contemplating food, and more specifically Korean food. Food holds a central spot in a Korean household and the mom is the one who makes the food. Korean food is time consuming to prepare because of the way a Korean meal is constructed.
The rice is the foundation of the meal. A bowl of rice is a cornucopia to a Korean -a magic bowl of happiness. The rice is eaten with ban ch’an -small dishes of prepared and seasoned meats, fish, and vegetables, sometimes pickled that add salty, spicy, tangy, and sweet to a bowlful of rice. The variety of side dishes is what is so appealing about the Korean meal and so devilishly hard to prepare. Most of the vegetable dishes are created from roots and leafy greens that distill large baskets of raw produce into handfuls of final items in small dishes on the table. The process sometimes takes the whole day, sometimes two days, and typically 3 or 4 of these vegetable dishes are standard.
The meat was a rarity in premodern times, and was usually reserved for festival days but prosperity has made it common. Fish, too, is standard -usually a hand sized cutlet of salted mackerel broiled in the oven is shared among everyone at the table. This emphasis on intensely flavored small portions of meat or fish allows a small quantity to flavor a mouthful of rice. So imagine a Korean war refugee who came into possession of a can of Spam from a US Army C-ration -it was ambrosia. Spam came into such high regard that even today, giving a carton of Spam is considered a suitably generous house gift.
Spam cooks to a beautiful crispness with juicy tenderness in the center of medium thickness cuts that perfectly flavor rice -especially cold left over rice. I found some rice and a can of Spam in the pantry and all thoughts of going out for a steak were gone. Filet mignon does not compare to a bowl of cold rice topped off by three medium thickness slices of Spam crisped to perfection on a frying pan. And in the near darkness of the empty house, I savored my repast to the last spoonful, feeling soothed, sated, happy. Mothered in fact.
Shown is a can of SPAM, which took a big hit during the nineties after junk e-mail (about p3n1s 3nlarg3m3nt, p0rn, and millions of dollars stuck in an account in Nigeria) was named after it. Fact is, for Koreans of a certain age, it meant not just sustenance, but luxury. During the Korean War, when hunger struck the fleeing and bombed out Korean population, SPAM in the form of government issue C-rations, was a treasure more dear than chocolate. I remember that it was very expensive, much more so per pound than fresh meat, and to give a case of it was the kind of thing you gave at weddings of very important relatives. That or the cans of pineapple rings, but I digress.
I suspect it had to do with the fact that it goes so well with cold rice. Sliced thin and fried in its own juices (and fat) on a grill to a crispiness on both sides, a slice of SPAM gives instant flavor to a bowl of leftover cold rice in ways that cannot be described. It is comfort food that is existential, bringing rush of memories of childhood when as a child of privilege in Korea, I was fed not only the finest fruits and vegetables, but meat, and the best meat in the form of SPAM.
I googled its shelf life, and most reports come back that as long as it has kept its vacuum, its probably still good to eat (link). Meaning as long as you keep it in a cool dry place, you can keep it for years, possibly decades.
Bachelor mock-fried rice:
cold rice from Chinese takeout, butter, soy sauce, sesame seeds (optional), black pepper, two fried eggs, spam. Melt butter into the cold rice in a skillet. Drizzle soy sauce. Separate pan, fry two eggs over easy and enough slices of spam for your man appetite. Put done eggs on rice and mix with spoon until eggs are fragmented. Put spam on side in bowl. Season with sesame seeds and black pepper. Go to TV and enjoy.