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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Closet cuisine

From Spam to Marshmallow Fluff, some foods are snubbed in public, secretly loved in private


Some foods are born with great reputations — caviar, champagne, dark chocolate. Other foods have little or no prestige — nor any respectability at all.

These low-brow foods are snubbed by serious cookbook authors and vilified by chefs. Spam, Cheez Whiz and Marshmallow Fluff are a few of the foods that fall into this category. Ask serious foodies if they ever partake of these devils of the food industry and you’ll probably get a barb in response: “Puh-leez! I don’t go near that stuff!”

But scratch the surface, and you may find that low-brow foods are not as low on people’s lists as you might think. For many people, they are the foods they say they love to hate — but secretly love. Call them closet cuisine.

My friend Lisa Wolfe, for instance, is the last person in the world I would expect to harbor a can of Spam in her pantry. Lisa is the kind of passionate cook who rolls out pie dough from scratch into buttery, flaky crusts that have no equal. She makes her own tomato sauce — and grows her own tomatoes. Lisa’s mother makes sticky buns dripping with icing and pecans from scratch, and bakes a loaf of sourdough bread every Saturday. Lisa’s grandmother makes her own sweet sausage. In other words, Lisa’s family takes food and its preparation very seriously.

What a surprise for me, then, to see Spam on Lisa’s shelf one day. A double surprise when she didn’t try to blame the cat for dragging it in. In fact, instead of trying to talk her way out of it, Lisa sheepishly pulled out a recipe that uses Spam as an ingredient. When I showed the slightest bit of doubt, she insisted on making it right then and there. It took no time at all, and I was forced to admit that Cheesy Spam Puff was downright delicious. Then I was forced to admit that I have my own food skeleton in the closet — a secret love of Velveeta Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product, which I know sounds about as appetizing as a jug of cod liver oil.

What happened in that moment, however, was that Lisa and I promptly bonded over our secret affection for low-brow foods. Since then, I have found other people hiding similar passions. Whether it is a nostalgic culinary attachment from childhood or simply a taste for the processed among all the healthful salads we force ourselves to eat because they’re good for us, people like the foods they know they shouldn’t — and may even admit it.

“As a kid, I drank a lot of Kool-Aid,” says my friend David Greenberg. “I still like it, but don’t tell anyone.”

David is not alone. He may have graduated to spring water and green tea in recent years, but the yearning for Kool-Aid lives on. After all, if Kool-Aid wasn’t popular, 563 million gallons wouldn’t be sold every year.

Every summer, 225 million gallons of Kool-Aid are consumed — which amounts to about 17 gallons every second. Not too hard to believe. When I was a kid, the family across the street guzzled more Kool-Aid than their Buick did gasoline — and I certainly drank my share. That’s why David and I were so excited when I discovered a recipe for Kool- Aid Cookies.

Kool-Aid Cookies are tangy and tart like Kool-Aid itself, and they turn the pastel shade of the Kool-Aid flavor that is mixed into the dough. These colorful cookies offer a nice alternative to food dye, because Kool-Aid gives flavor to the dough in addition to color, and there is literally a rainbow of flavors at the supermarket to choose from.

Following my discoveries of my friends’ hidden tastes for the lowly and bad-for-you, I began to indulge my own relationship with low-brow foods — this time with no shame. I still pride myself on creating many foods from scratch — pancakes, chicken stock, cheese soufflÈs. And I still respect sophisticated upscale cuisine that includes the likes of foie gras, vegetable pate and asparagus risotto. But every now and then, I get the urge to pluck a box of Jell-O or a can of Spam off the shelf and see what dish I can create to harness its irresistible junk- food qualities. I don’t think Martha Stewart would be pleased, but I enjoy it.

Before you roll your eyes and say, “Did you just tell me to buy a can of Spam?”, please note that I’m not advocating that you open a can of Spam and eat straight out of it with a fork, or slice it, place it on a silver platter, and serve it to company. What I am saying is that you’d be surprised what a nice flavor Spam adds to some dishes, like Cheesy Spam Puffs or Corn Fritters. In fact, I think those poor starving survivors in the Australian Outback would gladly have traded their shelter for a good supply of Spam.

The key to enjoying Spam — and other low-brow foods — is to think of these convenient foods simply as ingredients for your cooking pleasure. You may find the dishes that result to be easy, tasty and fun.

Marshmallow Fluff, for instance, is the key ingredient in a wonderful fudge recipe aptly dubbed Never-Fail Fudge. Unlike other fudge recipes, the inherent sweetness of Marshmallow Fluff blocks the chocolate taste of Never-Fail Fudge from being too bitter. The only downside to Never-Fail Fudge, in fact, is that you have to wait for it to cool before you can eat it, though you can console yourself by licking the pot while you’re drumming your fingers in impatience.

The trick in not failing is to make sure you let the mixture boil for exactly five minutes. I always set a timer. The mixture will bubble and brown as the sugar breaks down. Also, when adding the chocolate morsels, stir them in a bit at a time, not all at once. Otherwise, the chocolate will quickly soak up the Fluff mixture and became a sticky, solid chocolate lump.

Jell-O is another versatile low-brow product that can be adapted to many dishes. Four hundred million boxes are sold in the United States every year. While I loathe those congealed Jell-O salads of the 1950s, there is a creamy, elegant Jell-O dessert that I love to make from “The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking” By Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker (Scribner, 1997), the culinary bible. It is Strawberry Gelatin Cream, which calls for strawberry Jell- O to be mixed with strawberry ice cream, though the recipe works just as well with other combinations, such as lime Jell-O and vanilla ice cream — one of my favorites. If you use a fancy mold, I guarantee it will seem as if you worked much harder on this dessert than you really did, and the result is not only beautiful, it’s luscious.

Velveeta and Cheez Whiz are likewise hard to beat for both versatility and convenience. They don’t taste that good on their own, but used as ingredients, they emerge as delicious dishes. Though similar in taste and color, Cheez Whiz is creamy, while Velveeta is solid. Velveeta is used more in cooking, while Cheez Whiz is used for dips, though when heated, Velveeta melts to the same creamy consistency as Cheez Whiz.

Cheez Whiz mixed with relish or salsa makes a fast and wonderful dip, while Velveeta can be used in any number of combinations involving cheese, meat and vegetables. My favorite is Cheesy Noodles with Tuna and Vegetables, a kind of made-from-scratch Hamburger Helper. Kids who like tuna melts will love this dish, and it is both easy and quick.

As you can see, loving the low-brow is nothing to be ashamed of. So, go on, stock your cart with plenty of jars, cans and boxes, and remember, dinner doesn’t have to be gourmet to be good.