For Hawaiians, it's steak

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Combined with rice and wrapped in nori seaweed. Served with eggs or topped with pineapple. Tossed in macaroni and cheese, stir-fry or salad. Is there no limit to the dishes Hawaiians will dream up using Spam?

"As a child, we would make Spam sandwiches of Spam straight from the can on white bread with mayonnaise," said Ann Kondo Corum, who grew up in Hawaii in the 1950s and has written Spam-inspired cookbooks.

Today, Hawaiians eat more than 6 million cans of Spam a year, the nation's highest per capita consumption of the processed meat, which is cobbled together from a mixture of pork shoulder, ham, sugar and salt.

The state's love affair with Spam began during World War II, when rationing created just the right conditions for the rise of a meat that needs no refrigeration and has a remarkably long shelf life (indefinitely, the company says).

After the war, Spam remained a staple, but took off only during the 1970s, when it enjoyed a sort of epicurean Renaissance. Somebody -- details are a bit murky -- created Spam musubi, a sushilike snack. Suddenly, Spam got hot.

Today, mass-produced Spam musubi -- teriyaki-fried Spam served on nori-wrapped rice -- is widely available, including at most convenience stores.

Ms. Corum, whose books include Hawaii's Spam Cookbook , attributed the popularity partly to Hawaii's large Asian population.

"Asians eat a lot of rice. Spam is salty, and it goes well with rice," she said.

Though Spam musubi (musubi refers to a Japanese rice treat) remains the most popular Spam dish, the potted meat is served in a variety of forms and at both high-end restaurants and fast-food joints.

Award-winning restaurateur Sam Choy serves Spam kebabs. McDonald's and Burger King dish up Spam and eggs.

"They don't have burger wars in Hawaii; they have Spam burger wars," said Swen Neufeldt, the group product manager at Hormel Foods, the Austin, Minn., company that produces Spam.

In fact, though Spam is mocked on the mainland, the meat often is referred to as "Hawaiian steak."

"People on the mainland look down on it as white-trash food because they've never had it," Ms. Corum said. "If you've only had it baked with pineapple on top of it, that's understandable. But cooked other ways, like in stir-fry, it's really good."

Mr. Neufeldt argues that Hawaii isn't alone, pointing out that the product is in one-third of U.S. households.

"It's pretty mainstream," said Mr. Neufeldt, who explained that Spam now comes in 11 flavors, including Lite and Hot & Spicy.

"We have a Spam state fair recipe contest each year," he said. ''I'm just amazed at the creative uses that people come up with. It's definitely mainstream.

"I think the joking and kidding is more in the media than in the mainstream."


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