Spam is great. The 85-year-old block of canned meat has undergone a cultural reinvention.
Hormel has sold a record amount of spam for seven years in a row, and 2022 is on track for another similar milestone. The conglomerate behind Skippy and Jennie-O turkey says it can’t spam fast enough and is ramping up production capacity.
Spam is a trending ingredient on TikTok and on the menu of fine-dining restaurants in coastal cities. In 2019, a limited edition Spam pumpkin spice flavor sold out in minutes. (You can still buy it on Ebay, where it costs up to $100 a can.)
What is behind this phenomenon? Why is this piece of cooked pork that has long been stigmatized as fake meat, linked to war rations, and hilariously parodied by Monty Python now having kudos among foodies?
The popularity of spam in Hawaiian, Asian, and Pacific Island cuisine has influenced its growth in the United States. As more immigrants came to the United States and fusion dishes and ethnic cuisines entered the cultural mainstream, spam has reached new and younger foodies, say Hormel, food analysts and researchers.
Clever and clever advertising campaigns have also helped spam attract a wider range of customers than the Baby Boomers who grew up eating it, sometimes unwillingly.
“Spam has undergone a makeover,” said Robert Ku, associate professor of Asian and Asian American studies at Binghamton University and author of “Dubious Gastronomy: Eating Asian in the USA.” “Many famous chefs have been Asian and Asian-American and they reintroduced spam to a new audience.”
More than 100,000 visitors come to the Spam museum each year in Austin, Minn., with spam stories to tell and recipes to share, said Savile Lord, manager of the museum in the brand’s hometown. Visitors often ask her and other “Spambassadors” at the museum how spam got her name and what the hell is in it.
Spam first hit the shelves in 1937 as a convenient, long-lasting 25-cent, 12-ounce protein in a can during the lean years of the Great Depression. The spam contained nothing but pork shoulder, minced ham, water, sugar, and sodium.
It was a mix of George Hormel and his son, Jay, meatpackers in Austin. The Hormels had been working on the “problem of canning a shelf-stable pork product for many years and we finally solved it,” Jay told The New Yorker in 1945.
They offered a $100 prize for the best food name. It had to be short for display purposes and to fit in one-column newspaper ads. It also had to be pronounceable in any language.
The brother of a corporate executive launched “Spam”, a combination of “spice” and “ham”, at a party, and Hormel “knew at that moment that the name was perfect”.
From the beginning, spam was marketed as a time saver and staple for any meal: spam and eggs. Spam and pancakes. Spam and beans, spaghetti, macaroni and cookies. spam sandwiches
“You never imagined that one meat could have so many interesting uses. Morning, noon or night, hot or cold, spam hits the spot!” read one of the first ads. Spam was “miracle meat,” the company told consumers in newspaper advertisements and radio ads.
And then came the entry of the United States into World War II in 1941, the defining moment in the growth of spam.
At many Pacific outposts, which had little refrigeration or local sources of meat, American and allied troops relied on canned meat that could be stored for months and eaten on the go.
Hormel says that more than 100 million pounds of spam was sent abroad to help feed the troops during the war. Uncle Sam became known as Uncle Spam, much to the dismay of the troops forced to eat him every day.
“During World War II, of course, I ate my share of spam along with millions of other soldiers,” Dwight D. Eisenhower later wrote to Hormel’s president. “I’ll even confess to some nasty comments about it, uttered during the strain of battle.”
Yet for citizens of conflict-ridden Pacific countries who struggled with hunger and famine during the war and reconstruction years, spam was a symbol of access to American goods and services. Sometimes it was the only source of protein available. After the departure of the American troops, spam remained and became an ingredient in local dishes.
“Spam has become part of Asian culture,” said Ayalla Ruvio, a consumer behavior researcher at Michigan State University who studies consumer identity and habits. “It represented a part of America. It’s like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s.”
American troops also introduced spam to Korea during the Korean War in the early 1950s, and Budae Jjigae (army stew) became a popular Korean dish. Spam also remains a common ingredient in dishes almost anywhere US soldiers are stationed, including Guam, the Philippines, and Okinawa, Japan.
Hawaii, where the US military has long been a major presence, consumes more spam per person than any other state. It is piled on top of a block of rice and wrapped in seaweed to make Spam musubi and is sold at fast food chains such as McDonald’s in Hawaii. There’s even an annual Waikiki Spam Jam festival.
SPAM MUSABI AND TACOS
Many American soldiers returning from World War II swore never to eat spam again, and the brand was linked to rationing and economic hardship. But spam has attracted new consumers in the United States in recent years.
“When I started getting involved with the brand, we started to notice this transition to a stronger multicultural set of consumers,” said Brian Lillis, who has been a product brand manager for six years. “They brought with them the traditions of using the product in their home country or where maybe their ancestors came from.”
Hormel has worked with Korean, Taiwanese and Vietnamese restaurant chefs to spam their menus. As more people learn about these dishes, they go home and try to make their own versions, Lillis said.
Spam highlights its versatility on the plates of social networks and television commercials. There are ads for Spam and eggs, as well as Spam fried rice, Spam musabi, yakitori, and poke.
Spam has returned to the United States because Asian and Asian-American chefs like Chris Oh have tried to reinvent it in their own way, said Ku, a professor at Binghamton University. “They brought some of the culinary influences from Asia and the Pacific and made them better.”