Celebrating more than 75 years on a plate, Spam has dominated the world and taken over our dinner plates.
By Tiffany Ujiiye, Assistant Editor
Pork shoulder, ham, water, potato starch, sodium nitrite and sugar— these are the ingredients needed to make Spam. This mushy meat square wedged in a tin can packs more than 75 years of history and has carried on an
iconic legacy. Much like the hot dog or the pepperoni, Spam has revolutionized American dinners since the Hormel Corp. introduced it to grocery shelves in 1937.
Many have since had mixed feelings about the meat wedge. Even Jay Hormel, the son a wealthy meat-packing house owner from Minnesota, told the New Yorker in a 1945 profile piece that “sometimes I wonder if we should have…” associated his brand with Spam but would go back by admitting, “Damn it, we eat it in our own home.”
As World War II broke, Spam unleashed across the world and fell into the hands of many American G.I.’s. The can was portable and ready to eat while also giving soldiers much-needed protein for combat. Its shelf life was mysteriously long, but more importantly, it was cheap.
It was despised even by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as he wrote a letter to Hormel saying: “During World War II, of course, I ate my share of Spam along with millions of other soldiers. I’ll even confess to a few unkind remarks about it — uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as former, Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: Sending us so much of it.”
In fact, many veterans include Spam in their shared experiences about World War II. It was included in everyday language like “Uncle Spam” when G.I.’s were at food-supply depots, and a G.I. once described Spam as “ham that failed the physical” in a Times article.
“It was the grub G.I.’s loved to grumble about,” wrote Bruce Heydt. “Not because it wasn’t tasty, but because it was always there, sometimes three times a day.”
Hormel admitted to receiving hate mail from American G.I.’s during and after the war. Kept under the “Scurrilous File,” Hormel collected the letters of abuse sent to him from around the world. Quoted from the piece, Hormel told the New Yorker, “If they think Spam is terrible, they ought to have eaten the bully beef we had in the last war.”
Which brings many to the playground lunch lore of Spam’s acronym “Scientifically Processed Animal Matter” or canned cat food.
During the early years of Spam, Hormel’s competitors did use lips, snouts, even ears in their products, giving canned meat a bad rap. However, Hormel saw an opportunity in using pork shoulder, which was an undesirable byproduct of hog butchery as it was extra work to remove the meat. To solve that problem, Hormel invested in a hydraulic press, which squeezed the meat off the bone.
But the secret to Spam’s incredible shelf life is due to its packaging. Food historians point to Julius Zillgitt and his team for discovering how to can pork in a vacuum, preventing the meat from sweating and spoiling inside of the can.
The recipe, however, changed in 2009. Hormel began adding potato starch for a purely aesthetic reason, according to an article in Eater. The jelly layer that forms when the meat cooks would be better taken care of with the starch. The rest is still the same.
In Carolyn Wyman’s “Spam: A Biography,” she wrote “although the pork shoulder in Hormel’s luncheon loaves was filet mignon compared to the lips, tongue and, yes, even pig snouts competitors put in the ones they came out with following Hormel’s success, consumers couldn’t tell the difference by their appearance.”
Spam isn’t the most beautiful piece of meat ever offered for dinner to WWII civilians and soldiers.
During WWII, Spam’s presence made waves especially in the Pacific, as an entire generation there grew up eating it.
Professor Rachel Laudan of the University of Hawaii wrote in her book “The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage” that “the economy would have collapsed” without Spam’s proliferation on the Hawaiian Islands.
“Unlike the mainland, they couldn’t intern all the Japanese” in Hawaii, wrote Laudan, as the U.S. government began restrictions on the deep-sea fishing industry, which primarily consisted of Japanese American workers.
Vice Magazine writer Mark Noguchi noted that “during the war, there was this constant fear of shipments of food suddenly not making it to Hawaii anymore, so a lot of people during that time had a tendency to hoard things like Spam and toilet paper. My grandmother hoarded up to five cases of Spam at a time.”
As such an essential source of protein, Spam brought creativity to the cooking pan for many Japanese Americans who incorporated it into recipes such as fried Spam with eggs and rice, Spam fried rice, Spam katsu curry rice and more.
Arnold Hiura’s “Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture,” published in 2009, recorded a countless number of recipes, diving into Spam’s role in Hawaii’s food history.
“Food often played a big role in many of these stories, since it is something that everyone readily identifies with. My friends and I grew up on the plantation and sometimes talked about ‘the old days,’ which included food memories,” Hiura wrote in his book. “More importantly, we knew that food was a reflection of the culture and values that we all identified with.”
Back on the mainland, the 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans that were forcibly incarcerated during WWII had their share of Spam, too. In an interview with National Public Radio, Akemi Tamaribuchi spoke about her family’s recipe called the “Weenie Royale.”
Her family was incarcerated at Tule Lake and ate off of tin pie plates in the dreary mess halls. The U.S. Government provided castoff Army surplus foods like hot dogs, ketchup, kidneys, potatoes and, of course, Spam. What many once had at their dinner tables at home were wiped clean during the war and replaced with whatever was available.
Cupped with rice, Spam musubi was born as a portable meal for many Japanese Americans even after the war. The origins of the Spam musubi are still disputed between Japanese Americans from the islands or the mainland.
It’s worth mentioning that past the Hawaiian Islands, places such as Japan and Korea saw Spam as life saving. These countries were facing starvation and found ways to incorporate Spam into traditional cooking. For example, in Korea, budae jjigae or “Army Stew” became a staple dish during the Korean War.
In an article from the New York Times, a high-end department saleswoman in Seoul told the paper, “Here, Spam is a classy gift you can give to people you care about during the holidays.”
Today, Spam is available in 43 countries, including places such as China and the Philippines. Some countries consider Spam as a luxury or even a gift for Lunar New Year.
Many are baffled by Spam’s delicacy status abroad, but “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 a object of deep scorn?” asks Laudan in Eater. “Perhaps it was because [mainland Americans] saw themselves as unloading Spam on ‘those people over there.’”
Today, Spam is on the rise despite being historically complicated. In an article published by CBS News in 2008, food prices have been increasing faster than they’ve risen since 1990. The price of Spam increased as the economy crippled into recession. Sales jumped 10 percent in 2008, and customers continue to purchase their cans even today.
Spam has also found its way into popular food joints as an added remix with other haute dishes. Celebrated Korean American chef and author Roy Choi, famous for his gourmet food truck Kogi, created a Spam Banh Mi. The Vietnamese sandwich dish wedged with Spam is one of many dishes served by trendy chefs and highbrow eateries.
In 2009, L.A.’s Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook created a Spam and foie gras loco moco, grabbing the attention of the New York Times and the New Yorker.
Even a Spam Jam, a festival held in Waikiki, celebrates Spam annually with more than 24,000 attendees. Dishes such as Spam and corn chowder or Puerto Rican Spam flan find their ways onto plates and into peoples’ memory. This year’s street fest is set for April 30, and proceeds will benefit the Hawaii Foodbank, the largest nonprofit organization in Hawaii that feeds the needy.
London is also seeing Spam’s return this year with the arrival of a massive Spam can on wheels. The giant can is set to visit the city April 16 and 17 to celebrate 75 years in the United Kingdom. The tour references Monty Python’s sketch “Spamalot,” a musical based on Arthurian legend that launched in 1975 soon after “Saturday Night Live’s” skit “Spam,” which found humor in finding Spam everywhere on the restaurant’s menu.
The hand-size can even has a place in the Smithsonian Museum as well as its own museum in Spamtown, USA, or better known as Austin, Minn., Hormel’s headquarters.
Such an uptick in Spam’s popularity has certainly grabbed Hormel’s attention. Spam’s flavors now include Black
Pepper, Jalapeno, Chorizo, Teriyaki, Turkey, Hickory Smoke, Hot & Spicy and Tabasco sauce. With so many flavors and in so many dishes, Spam is a fixture of American culture as it is also a familiar taste of painful memories for some.
In Wyman’s book, Hormel spokesperson Meri Harris said, “I always tell people that if there is a lull in conversation, all you need to do is mention Spam, and everyone will have something to talk about all night long.”