Spam Casserole

Enter a troupe of viking singing “Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam!” When people think of Spam they laugh and either think of Monty Python’s sketch, or perhaps “Weird Al” Yankovic singing “Spam in the place where I live (ham and pork)”….

Lately, I haven’t wanted to do much thinking about food.  I’m one of the guilt-ridden Americans battling with the spectre of obesity.  I’ve been working on this one a while… with two significant successes, yet sliding back into unhealthiness.  My latest quest is how to diet and craft a maintainable diet and lifestyle…. if you stick to a “diet” generally you can lose, but I’ve never been able to make it stick by finding a good plan to maintain the weight loss when you get to your goal.

I’ve been doing reading about “healthy eating”, mostly in trying to detoxify my diet of prepared foods.  The thought being, that most of the chemicals and additives in modern prepared foods is making your liver work overtime, which hinders your ability to maintain a natural weight.  Wow!  Well, I’m going to give it a try, however in discussing it with my Mother, she let it slip that she had some leftovers in the refrigerator….. spam casserole.  OK, I had to have a half cup of it, chunk of spam and all. Don’t laugh…. I really love this dish.

This got me to thinking about two things, the history of casseroles and that of Spam.

Casseroles as a main dish is a relatively new thing. Early “casseroles” meant something entirely different. According to The Penguin Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson, it was “‘a covered heat proof vessel in which food is cooked and served’ (NSOED) or, by extension, the food cooked in such a vessel. The word has a complicated history, starting with a classical Greek term for a cup (kuáthos), progressing to a Latin word (cattia), which could mean both ladle and pan, then becoming an Old French word (casse, via the Provençal casa), which then became cassole (diminutive cassolette) and casserole. Beside explaining this Ayto (1993) draws attention to the remarkable fact that there has been a complete and sudden change in the meaning of a casserole in English in the last 100 years: When English took it over from French at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it meant a dish of cooked rice moulded into the shape of a casserole cooking pot and then filled with a savoury mixture, say of chicken or sweetbreads. It was also applied by extension to a border of rice, or even of mashed potato, round some such dish as fricasse or curry: Mrs Beeton’s recipe for a ‘savoury casserole of rice’ describes such a rice border. Then some time around the 1870s this sens of casserole seems to have slipped imperceptibly by swiftly into a ‘dish of meat, vegetable, and stock or other liquid, cooked slowly in the oven in a closed pot’, its current use.”

In America, I would be hard pressed to think of a potluck that didn’t have Green Bean Casserole, and some people are very familiar with the ubiquitous tuna casserole. The whole idea of a casserole as a one-pot dish seems to have come about in America in the early- to mid-20th century, as modern materials were used to make cooking containers which drove a revolution in easy at-home cooking.  A lot of women’s magazines were full of these types of recipes in the 1960’s, with the promise to reduce time and effort in the kitchen.

Now, the history of Spam is more straight forward. It was a canned meat product developed by the Hormel Company in 1937, which was during WWII. According the the company, the name “Spam” is a shortening of “Spiced Ham”. Funny enough, it is very popular in Hawaii, which makes the recipe make perfect sense in that context.

This casserole is one of the comfort foods I can uniquely identify in my childhood.  It was a cost-effective way to feed the family, and when I was growing up we didn’t have much, all the same my parents made sure we were fed!  As an adult, I’ve found some ways to modify it, and it is still yummy! It flies in the face of my detoxification, but darn it…. I got her to fish the recipe card out, and saw that it was a clipping from Better Homes & Gardens, January, 1966. It was attributed to Mrs. R. E. Day, Honolulu, Hawaii. Well, Mrs. Day… thanks for the recipe. This is not exactly that recipe, but it inspired the way my family makes it. Mom says it is the thyme that is really key to it, but I like the Spam.

1/2 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
1 can condensed cream of celery soup
1 7.5- or 8-ounce can of stewed tomatoes, drained and cut up
1/4 teaspoon thyme
dash of pepper
1 box of mac-n-cheese, prepared according to box
1 can of Spam, cut in strips
1/4 cup green pepper (optional — I hate green pepper, but Mom likes it)
1/4 cup shredded cheddar or american cheese

In a skillet, sauté onion in butter or margarine until transparent but not brown.

Stir in soup, tomatoes, thyme, and pepper…. I sometimes like to substitute a can of Ro-tel tomatoes to kick it up a little.

Add mac-n-cheese, Spam, and green peppers if you want them, if you use Ro-tel, you probably don’t.

Put into 1 1/2-quart casserole, and top with shredded cheese.

Bake at 350°F for 35 to 40 minutes or until heated through.