Contrary to recent media reports, local artist and performer Faith Farrell is not the self-proclaimed Spam Queen. “I don’t know where that came from,” Farrell told me. “My friends were the ones who started calling me the Spam Queen. I would never be presumptuous enough to proclaim myself the queen of anything.”
Farrell is technically the 2006 Great American Spam Champion, a title earned in the aftermath of her first-place prize in the Spam cooking competition at last year’s Minnesota Sate Fair. Since then, there have been articles, interviews, a parade appearance as Miss Spamerica, and even an invitation, a few weeks back, to appear on David Letterman (alas, she got bumped at the last minute, but hopes to return). “So I’m the grand champ, I guess,” she said. “And I do a lot of performing things, but really I’m more of a visual artist. I don’t know what I am. I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Ostensibly, Farrell is a forty-year-old artist living in Northeast Minneapolis, with an informal specialty in meats, mostly processed. Every Saturday night, Farrell performs in “Meat Raffle” at the downtown Grumpy’s, “a meat raffle and game show and variety show all in one,” where she does crafts demonstrations using meat. “Last week I did a ring-bologna tiara, also using some hot dogs. Tubular Meat Tiara is what I should call it, now that I think about it.” She also plays in local bars as part of a two-woman band called Lady Hard-On. “The majority of our songs are meat-related,” she noted, regarding the name. “We sing about all different types of sausages and meat products. I don’t know when it started, this meat thing of mine. It could be that my first high school job, working at a deli, provided those formative building blocks of my meat love.”
Spam entered the picture four years ago, when Farrell and friends toured Hormel Foods’s Spam Museum. That was where she discovered the State Fair cooking contests. “Every year, I enter the crop art contest at the State Fair, and I always try to get something into the Fine Arts building. But I had never done a recipe.”
Her first creation, “a Mediterranean pizza thing with apricot jam, feta cheese, kalamata olives, and, of course, Spam” did not impress the contest judges. “Flavors don’t go together,” they wrote. “Unappealing.”
The next year, she concocted Spamadillo, a recipe based on the Spanish picadillo, a stew in a base of tomato and hot peppers with cinnamon, onions, and dried cherries, served with rice and fresh cilantro. Friends sampled different versions and recorded their impressions on scorecards that Farrell recreated from those she’d received from Fair judges the year before. She lost again, but her overall score was better, especially for appearance. The judges said it was a beautiful arrangement. But they thought the flavors were too overpowering. “I realized that I may have inadvertently hidden the flavor of Spam,” Farrell admitted.
The light switched on: Winning recipes offered comfort and simplicity. “A lot of elbow macaroni and mayonnaise,” Farrell said. “Exotic ingredients would be, like, soy sauce. This made me consider what the contest was really about.” She imagined the most comforting food she knew, and then figured out how to create Thanksgiving leftovers in one dish. A little cranberry sauce, some Turkey Spam, a handful of sage, a dollop of mashed potatoes, Durkee fried onions, and cream cheese. Wrap it up in a Pillsbury Crescent Roll and bake: You’ve got yourself some Spamsgiving Day Delight. (The complete recipe can be found at Spam.com.)
“One of the appeals of Spam is that it’s so easy. I think I was getting a little too fancy,” Farrell said. Her instincts were spot-on: her Spamsgiving Day Delight took first place at the 2006 State Fair. She was thrilled, initially — and then bowled over when she got a call the following February saying she had won the national contest. “I thought it was a prank. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, shut up.’”
“We really enjoy Faith’s enthusiasm,” said Cyndi Harles of the Blue Ribbon Group, which has handled the Spam contest since 1990. And Faith is the first Minnesotan to win the national grand prize in the Spam contest, which, Harles pointed out, is Blue Ribbon’s longest running and most popular contest at state fairs all over the country, with upwards of a thousand entries each year. Farrell won a $3,000 cash prize for her recipe, which was judged by cooks in the Hormel Foods test kitchens on its taste, originality, and presentation.
The only downside to being Spam’s grand champ is that Farrell is banned from competing in the Spam contest at this year’s State Fair. But, she says, “I saw this new competition, ‘Frying With Canola Oil,’ where you deep-fry something on a stick. And I thought, hey, I can enter that and still sneak in the Spam.” She’ll also continue her tradition of entering the crop art competition with an image of a vintage Spam can. “It’s very time consuming doing this, bean by bean.”
Possibly most thrilling, though, is having earned the privilege to be an official judge for this year’s Spam contest. As last year’s first-place winner, she’ll now fill out scorecards on other people’s processed-meat dream dishes. “It’s a huge honor,” she said. “I wonder if they’ll have palate cleansers between each course.”