Monday, February 18, 2013

Canned Meat Taste Test in Belize

I did my dissertation fieldwork in southern Belize and had some very good food, some not good food, and also was influenced by some food prejudices (of specific gringos) that I worked to overcome. In the Fall of 2010 I made it a point to survey the various Spam-oid canned meats available done there, after I realized I'd been eating American cheese/tortilla sandwiches for months at a time (and therefore being starved) largely because a certain dipshit buying food thought Spam et al. was just too low class to eat. Oh, and any meat sandwich would rot by noon in the tropics. Bullshit. I decided to just say no to starvation, and for my short trip started to make sandwiches with canned meat and make a critical evaluation of their merits.

Three of the four are pictured above (the fourth was Hormel "Black Label"). I cut the loaf/block vertically into ~1/4" slabs and made two sandwiches from each can. I think I used mayonnaise and slabs of Western Dairy "cheddar" "cheese" on all of them. So I had each two days running while out hiking around in corn fields and hauling corn around and doing lightly strenuous work.

I was glad to have protein, fat, salt and flavor for lunch in every case. There's a reason these things exist in the tropics, and only dicks scoff at canned meat. Meat is good. My Maya co-workers have meat for lunch when it's available. The main axes of difference were texture, flavor(ing), and clarity of palate. Seriously, clarity of palate. Don't fuck with me in a taste test, Belize or Normandy or anywhere.

The Rankings:

4th: Hormel Black Label. Of the four this was clearly the most processed of them all, and the slippery (silky would be giving it too much credit) texture signals that you're probably dealing with the slimmest leavings of the butchering process. Taste was salty, but otherwise bland; like super cheap bologna. No real sense of a unique, distinct flavor. It's like they aren't even competing for a greater share of the market that Spam, Dak, etc., comprise. Hmm. I sense a horrible insight to be revealed pending further reflection. 

3rd: Tulip "Pork Luncheon Meat". In fact it's an even split between Tulip and (#2) classic SPAM overall, but Spam wins on texture. Tulip, being the second Danish entry into this melee, manages to carry the ground-up bologna texture and flavor of Hormel Black Label up as step, mostly by being cleaner and less-preservative tasting. But they're obviously not gunning for Dak in terms of respectability. If you close your eyes you have the sense that you are eating a hot dog near the mermaid statue in Copenhagen, and therefore you make allowances for the slightly odd taste of the hot dog. If you like hotdogs, this is #2.
2nd: Spam. Fighting (as ever) for primacy in the canned meat dept. is Msr. Spam. As noted, if you don't like the Spam taste, and prefer North American hotdog-ish stuff, Tulip is #2 and this is #3. Spam in North America amounts to a bad word for most people, but when you've had cheaper canned meats you realize how much worse this stuff can get. The texture is more firm than the "mousse" style (if you can call it that) of Tulip and Hormel, and overall the flavor is fairly light and not especially chemically. For those who have been estranged from Spam, the gelatinous goo that used to encase the loaf appears to be a thing of the past. I have an image of my dad spooning that stuff up and slurping away at it when I was a kid that still repulses me. Clearly Spam saw there was room for improvement and they took the horse (hah. European food supply.) by the reins.

1st: Dak. When most readers of this blog (or both readers, I should say) hear "Dak" they probably think of Luke Skywalker's doomed co-pilot on Hoth who gets stomped on by an AT-AT. His pointless and melodramatic death was echoed by that of Goose in Top Gun a decade later (seriously, he was killed because he hit the ejected canopy? gimme a break. (Cue Nell Carter: My game is The Bible!)). But the rest of the world knows Dak as a fine canned Chopped Ham. It is actually finer in taste than Spam, and I believe it has more variation in the texture, so there's some depth that develops as you chew. And it has a Viking of the front and the can itself is a delightful Rosetta Stone of European languages. I was going to bring one back to use as a teaching aid in archaeology classes, but I ate what I had and got too loaded the night before I left to stop at the store.

So Dak is where it's at for me. If I end up being starved by idiots down there again, I will pony up (hah! again with the horse jokes! how do I do it?) the 5 Belize dollars (2.50 USD) to get my supply of this stuff. It goes to show that it pays to be open to new foods, and that even when the choices are limited you can still try to get the best quality food available.

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