April 4, 2014 12:07 pm

First Person: Karen Winpenny

‘I help run a Spam festival in Hawaii’
Karen Winpenny carrying a tray of Spam©Marco Garcia

Karen Winpenny, pictured on Waikiki Beach, looking forward to trying a Spam popsicle

I was born in Philadelphia and grew up eating scrapple, a Pennsylvania Dutch dish of pork scraps and flour that’s deep-fried. I loved it. Food was very important in my family. When I was seven, we came to Hawaii to visit my grandfather and never left. It was a shock at first but I know now how fortunate I was to move here, because there’s such an eclectic mix of cultures – Hawaiian, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese.

Of course, there’s also so much wonderful food. I remember that on Christmas day we’d go to my adopted grandmother’s home for a Portuguese pork roast called vinha d’alhos – our breakfast – then to a traditional Hawaiian luau (feast) for lunch, and then home for our turkey and dressing for dinner with about 50 guests.

It might sound strange but it was in Hawaii that I learnt to love Spam. It’s hugely popular here. In fact, Hawaii is the largest consumer of Spam in the US: our population of 1.4 million goes through seven million cans a year. It’s a precooked luncheon meat, kind of similar to scrapple, but it has a unique flavour. I guess I ended up swapping scrapple for crispy fried Spam and eggs.

I’ve heard that Spam came to Hawaii during the second world war, when there were food shortages. It was cheap, portable and complemented local cuisines, so it turned into a staple. People threw diced Spam into Chinese fried rice. Spam-musubi – a tiny brick of rice with a slice of Spam on top and nori (seaweed) wrapped around it – became a Hawaiian version of sushi. Hawaiians used it in spaghetti and hamburgers, and with loco moco, a dish of white rice usually topped with a hamburger patty, fried eggs and brown gravy. Today you can find it at McDonald’s, served with eggs and rice, and at Burger King, where it comes on a croissant sandwich.

In 2002, I was working as a public relations director in Honolulu and was on a committee for the Waikiki Improvement Association. One day, we were talking about what we could do to draw more people into Waikiki, when someone said: “Why don’t we do something with Spam?” The lightbulb went on, and we created the Waikiki Spam Jam.

That first year it was just a little event held at a hotel with caterers doing familiar dishes such as Spam-musubi. But it soon grew into a large street festival on the main drag in Waikiki, right opposite the beach. We’re now in our 12th year and about 25,000 people show up – many of them travel here just for the Spam Jam. In 2013 we raised $25,000 and donated 2,200lb of food, enough to serve 62,000 meals, through the Hawaii Foodbank.

The food has become wildly creative over the years. We ask chefs from restaurants in Hawaii to contribute one signature Spam dish, and they take it very seriously. The expectation is that they do something unusual, not just Spam-and-noodles. We’ve had Spam French fries, Spam nachos, Spam meatballs, Spam sliders, Spam cheesecake, Spam ravioli, Spam macaroni and cheese, Spam chowder and Spam okonomiyaki – a savoury Japanese pancake made with shredded cabbage.

It’s hard to choose a favourite but the French fries are probably top of my list. The Spam is put through a French fry slicer, then deep-fried and served with a medley of dipping sauces. They’re incredibly delicious.

The Spam Jam this year is on May 3: we’re still finalising the menu but new dishes will include a truffle Spam ramen dish and a Spam pad Thai. Our chefs are always upping the ante. Last year there was an amazing vanilla ice-cream – the Spam and ice-cream combination gives you both salty and sweet. This year we’ll have a special dessert corner: a brown-sugar and pineapple sorbet with candied Spam, a popsicle with peanut butter ice-cream and candied Spam, a Spam and macadamia nut sundae supreme, and a Spam cupcake.

Everything in moderation!

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