Thursday, September 5, 2013 , Updated 3:21 p.m., October 1, 2013
Why Spam? Why not: The strange allure of State Fair’s popular cooking contest
See this year's winners at the bottom of the story.
FAIR PARK The 2013 State Fair of Texas is upon us, and while wacky fried food concoctions always receive fanfare, the annual Great American Spam Championship garners its own share of curious celebration.
"Judging the Spam contest is one of the most highly coveted judging positions at the State Fair," said Beth Betcher of The Blue Ribbon Group, a public relations agency that works with companies like Spam's parent company, Hormel, to put on similar contests around the nation.
Texas is one of 26 American states that host the competition. The winner of each state competition then faces off nationally. The rules change yearly, and in past competitions, participants were required to produce mac-n-cheese dishes or breakfast entrees, for instance. This year, the theme is sandwiches.
Contestants must use at least one 12-ounce can of Spam (any variety) and up to 10 additional ingredients. Winners are chosen based on taste, creativity and presentation. First place competes in the national competition, and the national grand prize winner receives a trip to the annual Spam Jam (yes, a real thing) in Waikiki, Hawaii. Children ages 7 to 17 may also compete in the Kid Chef division for a chance at the national grand prize of $2,000.
"Contestants spend all summer developing and perfecting their recipes for the fall's competitions," Betcher said.
The first Spam competition was hosted in 1990 in Minneapolis, and the State Fair of Texas added it to its roster in 1992. Since then, the event has had plenty of repeat competitors, said Betcher. One such competitor, Paula Joy Kindred, took home first place in 2012 after years of hopeful entries.
Kindred was no stranger to first place -- over the years, she'd brought home blue ribbons in a number of other State Fair cooking contests and had placed a few times in Spam -- but winning the competition outright remained her White Whale.
Why let an odd ingredient like Spam take such prominence?
"It's such a challenge," she said. "It's one of those things that moms have to say, 'just take one bite' before most of us will try it."
The Plano resident began competing at the State Fair of Texas in the 1970s. The annual cooking and baking competitions have always been a family affair. Her mother Joy Wyse and sister Donna Hill -- who has also won the Spam competition and who Kindred calls "the Spam Queen" -- are also avid culinary creators.
When Kindred's wedding was set on the same date as the Crisco Pie contest one year, she moved back her ceremony a week so that her mother and sister could compete without feeling stressed out. And while there's immense respect among the three, that doesn't mean there isn't a healthy dose of competition. Kindred came in second to Hill twice before taking home her own victory last year.
"You just keep going," Kindred said. "It's tough competition, but I've made friends through it."
Kindred even appeared last year on television with one of her "State Fair friends," Donna Thomas, who competed with her on Game Show Network's Beat the Chefs.
"The best advice I know, I learned from my sister," Kindred said. "It doesn't really matter if you have a great recipe if it doesn't look really good. That works both ways."
She said she was crushed when her Asian-inspired Mahalo Cups Spam recipe didn't win upon the recipe's first submission, but she was able to take the judges' criticism and rework it. Though she'd won blue ribbons in a number of other competitions, including Ghirardelli, she still wanted to perfect her Mahalo Cups by reducing them to smaller, easier to eat, bite-sized pieces. The attention to detail and positive attitude paid off: It was that recipe that won first place in 2012.
Her takeaway: "Just stick with your convictions and go with your guts. Sometimes it's out of your control -- sometimes it's about the judges' mood or what they feel like. Just do your best," she said.
The 2013 Great American Spam Championship at the State Fair of Texas takes place on October 1 in the Creative Arts Building at Fair Park.
UPDATE: The results are in!
- First place: Sheila Doucet from Richland Hills with Philly Dilly Cheese Spam Sandwich
- Second place: Phillip Curtis from Dallas with In a pinch – Spam pocket
- Third place: Melvin McKnight from Dallas with Spicy Spamiento Sliders
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