Published in: San Francisco Chronicle
Date: February 18th, 2004
A town gives thanks for a humble can that came to the rescue. Spam anyone?
by Stephanie Gold

It's Sunday after Valentine's Day and the Hotel Del Rio in Isleton is alive with Spam fans. The delta bar and sidewalk are blue with Spam T- shirts and Spam hats. A woman flaunts a Spam cape and a fly swatter. She's having a ball swatting people on the arm and saying, "Spam, Spam, Spam" in gleeful rebuke.

A man, his torso engulfed by a giant foam Spam can, smokes a cigarette outside and hoists a beer. At 11 a.m. the band is rocking and there's not a bar stool empty.

It's the Eighth Annual Del Rio Spam Cook-Off, a warm community celebration. It's also an opportunity for ingenuity, dancing and inebriation, and a tribute to victims of the 1996 floods.

Two affected by the floods are Gary and Linda Allen. In 1996 they'd retired, moved to Isleton (Sacramento County) and bought a house.

"Six months to the day," Gary says, "we flooded and lost everything we owned. The waterline was 9 feet, and the Red Cross put us up at the hotel."

The hotel, the Del Rio, was built in 1949 and bought by Charli and Ralph Hand in 1986.

"It was months before the waters went down and the people could return to their houses," Charli Hand recalls. "So they lived in our 22-room hotel, whole families in single rooms, and they kinda started getting a little testy."

Residents visited their flooded homes and returned with tales of canned- food woe. It seems the labels had come off all the canned food tins, but lo, the Spam labels held fast. Talk of mystery dinners inspired Hand.

"Let's make some fun out of it," she said. "Let's have a Spam contest.

"It was something to make our own enjoyment, to give us something to do rather than just sit at the bar and drink," Gary Allen says.

There were 30 or so people that first year. They cooked Spam, they carved it and they dressed up as Spam fans. With a pork pie hat topped by a can of Spam and a cape that proclaimed him Captain Spam, Gary Allen became a beloved Spam superhero. His modest explanation of the transformation: "I like getting dressed up."

As, apparently, do many others.

Sonny McCook is the fellow inside the foam Spam can, and one of five judges for the cooking contest. Josie Hall, the woman with the fly swatter, is another judge. She won last year's contest with her Thai stir-fry concoction.

Hand, she says, asked her to enter again and defend her title, "but I wanted to stay undefeated, so I'm a judge instead."

Past years have included Corn Chowder with Spam, Spamaghetti, and Spam Pumpkin Soup. This year's batch features Off Road Spam Rollies, heart-shaped Spamoni, Sweet & Sour Spam and Spam Wonton Soup.

Some contestants cook with Spam regularly.

"Everybody likes to fish and hunt here," Hand says. "Anyone who goes out overnight ends up bringing a can of Spam."

Others are novices and not necessarily Spam aficionados. Tom Sigler lives in Nevada County, up in Penn Valley, which is near Grass Valley, and when he saw a Texas Spam Cook-Off on TV, he wanted to compete. Then he learned about the Del Rio. He concocted Sigler's Spicy Szechwan Sweet & Sour Spam and drove with his wife, Haydee, to Isleton. "I don't even like Spam," he said, "but this is good."

The judges, agreed, awarding the Siglers third place.

Judges, too, have a complicated relationship with Spam. Yvonne Nichols of Sacramento has been a regular since the festival started -- she and her husband Jay were judges in 1996 -- and she's fond of her Spam macaroni and cheese and her fried Spam snacks.

Bill Cox, a six-year resident of Isleton and owner of the Delta Daze Inn, eats Spam just once a year, at the cook-off, and he hates mushrooms. One year someone made mushrooms stuffed with Spam.

"I rated it a minus zero," he announced with pride.

Iva Corder, another judge and an Isleton resident since 1966, says approvingly, "Some of the stuff, you can't even tell it's Spam. That what I look for."

At 1:20 p.m., the judges are briefed on their responsibilities. They get scorecards for rating each entry on taste, originality and presentation.

"You've got to do this independently," Hand instructs them. "No talking!"

They jump to their task, talking nonstop.

Hungry people from the bar area wander in and are shooed out. "I cannot work under these conditions," McCook complains jovially, his mouth full.

Corder tastes an entry and comments "Oh, mmm!" A fellow from the Chamber of Commerce records it all on a video camera.

The banter finally dies down as the judges eat, contemplate their plates and fill out their scorecards. Then the public is allowed in. One dollar gets them a small plate, a plastic fork and as much of the Spam entries as they care to eat.

The party's on full blast in the bar. The band, Joanie Lee and the Branding Irons, blast "Twist and Shout," and the old-time locals usurp the floor.

James Mallamace, Isleton's oldest resident at 106, knocks back shots and sputters with vitality. He was 39 when Hormel canned its first Spam.

In years past, Spam carving shared the cook-off limelight.

Captain Spam was undeniably the carving king, winning every year. His first entry was a Huey Helicopter, followed by trucks, trains, boats and Spamchua, a Chihuahua with olive eyeballs, a cherry nose and artichoke-leaf ears.

His model of the Titanic was generally considered a work of Spam genius; he used sour cream dip for the iceberg.

"You could actually cut into the thing," says Hand, "put it on a cracker and help sink the Titanic."

This year, though, Captain Spam is ill and no one else signed up to carve. So the event has been replaced with a Spam-eating contest.

Four contestants line up on stage, and a plate of Spam -- freed from its can but effortlessly maintaining can form -- is set before each. The rules are announced.

"No hands allowed, and if you throw up you're disqualified."

Fair enough. The contest begins. The participants dip their heads like bobbing birds and take appalling mouthfuls. Soon it's clear that Michael Abbott of Stockton is endowed with prodigious Spam-swallowing gifts. He licks up the last crumbs as the announcement of his win rings out.

"I like ham and I've eaten worse," he reflects after the applause dies down. "I didn't think I would win, but I was hungry."

The Spam cleared, the band launches into a rousing rendition of "Get Your Can of Spam, Man," with lyrics composed by band members the day before to the tune of Geoff Mack's "I've Been Everywhere."

With the contests over, dancing and drinking take center stage. The Spam's clearly an excuse for a shindig in a town that likes to party. But as raindrops replace sunshine, damp memories of the floods of '96 seep in. Another reminder comes in the form of wontons.

Linda Allen, wife of Captain Spam, has entered the cook-off every year since the start. But this year, with Gary too ill to attend, she has sent daughter Kendra to the event to deliver the soup.

The Spam Wontons easily take first place.

"They're actually really good," Judge Bill Cox says.

And he's right. They are.

Spam facts
Hormel produced its first can of Spam in 1937.
The original product was spiced ham. The name came from a Hormel employee who combined the two letters "sp" and "am."
In 1959, the billionth can was produced; the Spam total passed six billion in July 2002.
In the United States, a can of Spam is consumed every 3.6 seconds.
Per capita, the biggest Spam consumers are Hawaiians.
In September 2001, the Spam Museum opened in Austin, Minn., Hormel's hometown.