I have long admired Spam. Not the taste of Spam but rather its place in pop culture, its slice (or gelatinous chunk) of kitschy cool Americana.
My fascination with this canned non-ham probably began in college. My good friend Brett Bass had the ugliest, cheesiest — yet coolest — Spam baseball cap that he wore everywhere for years. When he graduated, Brett “willed” the hat to me in one of our annual fraternity traditions. I can recall the sheer joy of receiving this treasured memento as if it were yesterday. Each time I wore this elegant trucker cap, I thought of my dear departed (to dental school) friend. Two years later, when I graduated, I left this beautiful cap along with my priceless Engelbert Humperdinck Greatest Hits cassette to some other lucky souls.
My love affair with Spam did not end with graduation, however. A few years ago, I finally realized a half-life dream — speaking of which, what is the half-life of Spam: decades? centuries? — of visiting the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn. (I love to travel by car, and the Spam Museum is one of America’s quirky roadside attractions that had eluded me for years.) For the record, this museum is right up there with Mitchell, S.D.’s Corn Palace for sites too cool to be true.
But eating Spam? No thanks. Before I came on the Appalachian Trail, I had eaten Spam just once in the past 40 years. That one exception to a Spam-free adulthood came in a Wisconsin campground hours after my friends and I had hit our credit limits at the Spam Museum gift shop. And it was delicious that night, but my friend Brad, the Bobby Flay of Campground Cuisine, can make anything taste great.
So when I got on the AT in July, I decided that I would not be eating two staples of the hiker diet: Ramen noodles and Spam. No matter what you add to it — and I’ve seen too many ingredient combinations to list here — Ramen noodles just does not seem filling enough. And Spam, I ate too much of that as a kid. (My old man often patronized businesses in which he owned stock; Blimpie comes to mind. I can only guess that he must’ve held Hormel stock back when I was 6 to 8 years old.)
Ramen has been easy to avoid. I eat mac and cheese two to three times a week and could probably do so for the next 50 years. I also make a meal of instant mashed potatoes about once a week, and Knorr pasta and rice sides make a tasty dinner when you add tuna, salami or summer sausage. Spam, however, has been unavoidable. For lunches, I eat peanut butter and tuna salad bagels quite often. I used to live on salami, pepperoni and summer sausage, too. After a few months, though, I can only stomach salami and summer sausage mixed in with pasta or rice at dinner. Pepperoni, I can stand that only on pizza anymore. And the thought of tortillas, something on which I thought I could live, makes me want to hurl.
So where does a hungry hiker go when in search of protein and calories? Spam. I had my first Spam bagel a few weeks back. It was glorious. It’s terrific with cheese, or without. It’s amazing in mac and cheese, and Spam turns broccoli and cheese pasta into tantalizing trail food. Please forgive me, Spam, for underestimating you in all your glory. Spam, I can’t quit you … for 1,600 more miles at least.
After four or five days in the woods, nothing beats a stop in town. Showers and laundry and library computers are great, but nothing beats the food options. A lifetime eating at McDonald’s burned me out on that food for life — until I hit the trail. Now, I stop at every McDonald’s I see, routinely engulfing 2,500 to 3,000 calories in a sitting. I try to avoid too much red meat back in the real world, but on the trail I crave hamburgers. When people leave the trail, they often cite the same thing they miss most: eating like a 16-year-old. We burn so many calories each day that we don’t have to worry about our waistlines, too. Thoughts of today’s lunch (below) will keep me hiking for another four or five days … until I pig out in the next town.