“One country’s joke is another country’s breakfast”: The story of Spam

Illustration for article titled “One country’s joke is another country’s breakfast”: The story of Spam
Photo: Karl Gehring / Contributor (Getty Images)

In the most literal sense, Spam is canned meat. It was first sold in 1937 by the Hormel Foods Corporation of Austin, Minnesota, where there is now a museum in its honor. It’s made from “Pork with Ham, Salt, Water, Modified Potato Starch, Sugar, and Sodium Nitrate.” This is a direct quote from the package, and I have no idea why a distinction has been made between pork and ham. In a 1945 interview with The New Yorker, Jay Hormel, president of Hormel Foods, clarified that “There’s nothing in it but shoulder of pork and chopped ham and the know-how of cooking it.” Then why is the word “shoulder” not on the packaging? No one asked Mr. Hormel, so he did not explain.

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In all fairness to the reporter, Hormel came to the interview in a pretty defensive mood. Although Spam was only eight years old at that point, Hormel had already secured a lucrative contract with the Army to feed it to troops overseas, not just the American army, but the Russian army as well. If an army marches on its stomach, the Allies marched on Spam. Civilians who were enduring wartime meat rationing ate lots of Spam, too. The Brits, who were hit hard by the Blitz, “expressed their fervent thanks for Spam,” at least according to an official company history.

The Yankee soldiers were less appreciative. They wrote letters to Hormel, who dutifully stashed them away in what he called his “Scurrilous File,” but he was not sympathetic. “If they think Spam is terrible,” he told The New Yorker, “they ought to have eaten the bully beef we had in the last war.”

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Some people claim that the name “Spam” is a contraction of “spiced ham.” But there is no spice in Spam. In the same New Yorker interview, Hormel explained that he and his team spent months trying to think of a name for their new canned pork product, one that would be short, easy to remember, not easily confused with a drug product, and translatable into many languages. He even offered a $100 prize. But it wasn’t until a New Year’s Eve party at Hormel’s house that a guest, feeling inspired, came out with “Spam.” Hormel knew at that very moment that he had found the perfect name.

It’s also a name that, as Monty Python proved, gets funnier the more you say it—Spam, Spam, Spam, SPAAAAAAM!—although I guess Hormel employees must be used to it by now. While I was researching this story, I learned of the existence of the Hormel Girls Drum and Bugle Corps, a group of female World War II vets (“Veteranettes”) who spread the gospel of all Hormel products but especially Spam through postwar America with parades and supermarket presentations and eventually a radio show. The whole thing was wonderfully absurd, but the detail that made me laugh the most was that they were known as the Spamettes.

Weird Al Yankovic and Spam, 1984
Weird Al Yankovic and Spam, 1984
Photo: Bob Riha Jr (Getty Images)

In America, Spam has become a joke for other reasons, too. It’s the kitschiest of convenience food. It’s low-class, a cheaper form of pork (a meat that is already cheap), a punchline for jokes about rednecks, featured prominently in at least two cookbooks that proudly claim to be “white trash” cuisine.

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But, as the writer Corina Zappia notes in her Gastronomica essay “Filipino: The Five-Step Plan,” “One country’s joke is another country’s breakfast.” American soldiers may have hated Spam, but the people who lived in the countries they occupied—notably Hawaii, the Philippines, and Korea—felt much differently. They embraced Spam and made it part of their cuisine.

It wasn’t always a happy story. “We were taught that our food was inferior,” the chef Amy Besa told Zappia, “and therefore there is a shyness toward presenting it. When we were under the Americans, via mass media and through cookbooks, the general message was that American food would be better than ours. And that’s been our consciousness.” Filipino schoolchildren were taught that canned condensed milk was healthier and more nutritious than local buffalo milk because if had been produced in an American factory and had therefore been inspected by government officials. Canned food was also more expensive, which made it a luxury item. When American GIs were stationed in the Philippines during World War II, they brought Spam with them to add some protein to their diets. When they left, the Spam stayed, fried and served with rice and eggs in the morning as Spamsilog.

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Hawaii is the world’s largest market for Spam. Spam also arrived there courtesy of the GIs. Its arrival coincided with government paranoia and racism against Japanese Americans. The Japanese-American population in Hawaii was too large to round up and send to internment camps en masse, as happened on the mainland, so the U.S. government did the next most destructive thing: it cut off the deep-sea fishing industry, the source of their livelihood. For protein, they were forced to eat Spam. They improvised. They combined it with rice and nori into Spam musubi, still a Hawaiian convenience store staple, and they served it fried with rice, a fried egg, and brown gravy and called it loco moco.

Loco moco with Spam
Loco moco with Spam
Photo: Spencer Weiner (Getty Images)
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American soldiers were still eating Spam during the Korean War. They were sufficiently supplied that they could throw it away, and Koreans, who were starving, would pick leftover Spam, hot dogs, and ham from the garbage or trade for them on the black market. (After the war, under the dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee, Spam smuggling was punishable by death.) These meats, the sociologist Grace M. Cho notes, were salty enough that they didn’t spoil, and they combined well with Korean vegetables and spices. Heo Gi-Suk, a restaurant owner in the city of Uijeongbu, first combined them into a dish called budae jjigae, or military base stew. For older Koreans or Korean-Americans like Cho, whose mother worked at a bar at a U.S. naval base during the war, budae jjigae brings back painful memories of shame and privation, but among younger people, it’s now trendy and embraced as comfort/hangover food. Even Anthony Bourdain ate it (though he couldn’t resist mocking the Spam)!

Why the disparity? Why is one country’s joke another country’s breakfast? The food historian Rachel Laudan, who lived in Hawaii for many years and wrote extensively about its food, has another idea: “Instead of saying, ‘Why is it so odd that people in Hawaii or people in Korea or people in the Philippines eat Spam and like it,’ the question is: Why did it become such an object of deep scorn?” she told Eater. “Perhaps it was because [mainland Americans] saw themselves as unloading Spam on ‘those people over there.’”

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With that admonition in mind, I decided to open my heart and taste buds and try Spam for myself. I’d never had it before: when I was growing up, my family never even ate uncanned ham, and it never occurred to me to try it when I started cooking for myself. So I bought a can from my neighborhood grocery, pried it open, and cut off a slice. My dog was very interested, since it smelled like his food. But instead of eating it raw, I fried it up on the stove in a little bit of vegetable oil.

Reader, I liked it. It was salty as hell, but crispy, the way I imagined Ma Ingalls’ salt pork would taste when I read By The Shores Of Silver Lake (those descriptions made me drool slightly, and when I found a hunk of salt pork at the grocery store and tried it in my own kitchen, I was greatly disappointed). The texture was like that of a hot dog. And I understood why it was so often paired with rice: the blandness would balance out the saltiness.

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When you pop it out of the can, though, and try to eat it cold the way the GIs must have in their foxholes, it’s nothing but mush and salt with a weird metallic aftertaste. It also smells like vomit. I can fully understand their distaste and why they refused to eat it ever again once they came home. I can also understand how they must have passed this distaste on to their families.

Spam is one of those foods that is not at its best when it’s raw. People in Hawaii, Korea, and the Philippines like Spam because they cook it. What a concept! I wonder if they’re laughing at us right now. They sure as hell should be.

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Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

I want to try the Korean army stew that has this in it.