Kathryn Rem: Judging the Great American Spam Championship

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

When it comes to judging at a state fair, I’m the worst.

The Great American Spam Championship is one of the culinary contests held each year at the Illinois State Fair. The sponsor this year asked if I wanted to be one of the judges. I said yes because I thought it would be fun.

It was fun, but it also was difficult for me. That’s because I discovered I don’t like Spam. I hadn’t tasted it since I was kid, when my mom would make fried Spam sandwiches. My sisters and I put ketchup on the sandwiches and thought they were delicious.

So when I considered judging the contest, I thought I still liked the canned meat. But after sampling a few of the entries, I realized my tastes had changed over the years.

State fair judges are trained to put their own personal preferences aside and objectively evaluate based on the merits of the dish. Unfortunately, I found I couldn’t do that. Every dish tasted salty and overly processed to me, and I couldn’t get past it.

Fortunately, the contest also had two excellent judges: Susan Dierker-Becker, a retired teacher from Havana, Ill., and Dave Robson, a University of Illinois Extension specialist. Both have been picking the winners of the state fair Spam contest for more than 15 years.

“I HAVE to judge Spam. It’s my favorite contest,” said Susan, who judges many of the culinary competitions at the fair. “We take it very seriously.”

They certainly do. Each entry was thoroughly examined by Susan and Dave. They sniffed, tasted, inspected and forked through each dish, discussing the merits and deficits of each one.

It was raining on judging day, and, at one point, water started pouring into the Hobbies, Arts & Crafts Building from high windows, spraying the judges with water. But even that didn’t deter them. They brushed off the rain and continued sampling the entries with determination.

The 24 adult and junior entries included a Spam sundae, Spam barbecue sandwiches, Spam-mango salad, Spam Thai pizza with ginger and peanuts, Spam bread pudding, Spam foccacia with peaches and pecans, Spam spaghetti, Spam maple bits in pizzelles, Spam-on-a-stick, Spam potpie, Spam-rice casserole, Spam curry, Spam linguine, Spam grits, Spam wraps, Spam maple-bacon appetizers, Spam muffins, Spam-potato casserole, Spam bites topped with jalapeno potato chips, Spam brunch pizza with eggs and hash browns, Spam meatloaf and Spam carbonara.

I sampled every one of them.

“I like the creativity people come up with. I’m always looking to see if it works,” Dave said. “The ingredients should complement the flavor of Spam, not try to cover it up. I like when that Spam flavor comes through.”

See? A good judge.

It so happens that Susan and Dave both like Spam. But that’s not a requirement for judging. Even if they didn’t care for the taste, I’m certain they still would have been able to evaluate fairly. That’s what trained judges do.

I, on the other hand, found out I could not be fair, at least not with Spam. So I left the scoring to Susan and Dave and simply offered up a lame comment now and then.

It was a long day.

Food editor Kathryn Rem can be reached at kathryn.rem@sj-r.com.