The story of spam

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British school lunches in the seventies and eighties saw Spam frittered, rissoled and fried, then plopped onto plates where it left a damp shadow of grease in its wake. Liberally coated in salt and dipped into cheap ketchup Spam provided a hit of salt and sweet that some of us found strangely addictive, and those who did could easily find a liberal supply of fritters from the many Spam-hating pupils keen to fool the vigilant dinner ladies who would make you sit until you cleared your plate. Introduced to the UK in the forties, this cheap and easy to store product was on the menu at least once a week in British school lunch-halls from the early sixties until the late eighties at least, and even graced the tables of upmarket restaurants where dishes with such exotic names as ‘ballotine de jambon valentinoise’ were created to disguise its humble nature.

Spam’s popularity has never died in in other parts of the world, especially so in Hawaii where the sales of Spam nudge into super-consumer levels with each person getting through around 5 cans per person per year on average. (Official figures indicate that 6 million cans of Spam are eaten each year in Hawaii.) Hormel, makers of Spam, celebrate their 126th birthday this year and business has never been better. Even more remarkably,  all that Spam is still only produced in two American locations, Austin, Minnesota, and Fremont, Nebraska, and three other countries, Denmark, South Korea and the Philippines.

According to the Hormel website, the roots of Spam adoration can be found in the Second World War when the luncheon meat was served to GIs because it required no refrigeration in a hot tropical climate and had a long shelf life. When Congress passed the 1941 Lend-Lease Act in 1941, Hormel ramped up wartime production to supply over 15 million cans to Allied troops, producing over one hundred million pounds of Spam which Kruschev once described as having saved his army from starvation although President Eisenhower was less complimentary about it, describing how he contributed his fair share of “unkind words about it-uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as a former Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it,” in a letter to Hormel in 1966. Across the Atlantic, in the UK, the future British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, referred to it as a ‘a war-time delicacy’, remembering one Boxing Day 1943, when she ‘had friends in and … we opened a tin of Spam luncheon meat. We had some lettuce and tomatoes and peaches, so it was Spam and salad.’ As the daughter of a grocer, her family would no doubt have received shipments of Spam to sell in their shop.

Referred  to as special army meat which is possibly a source of its name, some say Spam derives from the words spiced ham whilst other people believe its name is an acronym for shoulders of pork and ham. Hormel aren’t confirming or denying, understanding that the mystery is part of the publicity. “The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives. And probably Nostradamus,” says the official Spam website.

Like many other army supplies, surplus cans made their way from the mess into the kitchens of locals such was the need for a black market to relieve the mundane nature of wartime diets and by the end of the war, Hawaiians had developed a lively appetite for it, creating meals such as Spam with fried rice, Spam musubi, (a sushi-style slice served with rice and seaweed), Spam fried rice and Spam with eggs. Margaret L, who lives on the Big Island grew up eating it:

“My love for Spam derives from my family, both Mom and Dad, who had hard times during the Depression and were both involved in World War II — my Dad in the Navy (and at Pearl Harbor on December 7) and my mom as a cadet nurse (a special unit). So SPAM and Vienna Sausages were frequent choices at our house growing up.

And as Margaret explains, the continuing popularity of Spam isn’t just to do with nostalgia and habit but about a foods ability to adapt to changes in the way we eat and what we can afford:

“Now that I am in my 60s, I seem to return to it as a comfort food reminding me of the past in some part of my memory bank, but also finding it very tasty and economical in today’s economy! When I first returned to it, I truly didn’t think I would like it as much as I do, and, as I said above, I haven’t even gotten around to adding pineapple yet.”

“As a child we would make Spam sandwiches straight from the can on white bread with mayonnaise,” says Ann Kondo Corum, who grew up in Hawaii in the 50s and has written several Spam-inspired cookbooks where recipes for corned beef manapua with Spam, Depression dinner party mix, and eggplant and Spam tempura rub shoulders with more prosaic sandwiches. She talks of local grocery stores having to restrict shoppers to five cans per person when new stock comes in otherwise supplies would soon run dry. [Hormel itself says it manufactures about 395 cans a minute and has sold EIGHT BILLION CANS since its invention]. A recent CBS documentary about Hawaii’s love for the canned meat showed an entire supermarket shelf stocked with fourteen different flavours. There are rows and rows of tins in rainbow colours: pink tins of Spam with cheese; Spam with garlic; Spam with turkey breast meat and with Portuguese sausage; smoked with hickory; spiced with jalopeno, or containing whole macadamia nuts. It is mind-boggling and gloriously quirky to me, but not so much for those Hawaiians who have grown up eating the meat on a regular basis. And since I’ve written this feature, I’ve no doubt there’s even more flavours on the shelves.

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When that first can rolled off the conveyor belt back in 1937 Hormel’s competitors were selling canned meat made from the lips, snouts and ears of the pig but Hormel refused to use these parts and nowadays the U.S. Department of Agriculture no longer permits any non-meat fillers in lunch-meat and does not allow it to be made from pig snouts, lips, or ears. About 90% of Spam is pork from pigs shoulders and the remaining 10% comes from pig butt and thigh, which we would also know as ham. Today, pork shoulder is a very popular cut but when Spam first hit the shelves, this part of the pig was under-utilised.The original recipe remained unchanged until 2009, when Hormel began to add potato starch to mop up the layer of gelatin that naturally extrudes from bone and connective tissue when meat is cooked. Customers reported being put off by the look of the Spam with this gellified layer and so an aesthetic rather than gustatory choice resulted in this tweak to the original recipe. All things considered, if you eat hot dogs whose ingredient list is considerably lengthier (and spookier!), Spam should be rather less of a leap.

Despite this, and the fact that pork shoulder is used plus water, salt and nitrites to preserve that pink colour, Spam retains an unwarranted reputation as a can of ‘meaty floor sweepings’ as one anonymous food writer told me and there still remain Hawaiians who aren’t that enamoured of it, says Courtney Turner who blogs about life on Maui from a jungle bungalow:  “I rarely eat it unless it’s in musubi and I don’t eat it that often but there is a Spam cookbook from Hawaii,” she says.

“People on the mainland look down on it as white trash food because they’ve never had it,” agrees Corum. “If you’ve only had it baked with pineapple on top of it, that’s understandable.

“But cooked other ways, like in stir-fry, it’s really good,” Corum adds. “It’s the same negative feeling some people have toward organ meats like tongue. But if you go to France those things are a delicacy.”

Spam is seen as a trash product by many Americans and Brits who might have a few cans pushed to the back of their pantries along with marrow fat peas, miscellaneous canned soups and something untranslatable they bought on holiday because they liked the label. You might eat it when you have run out of everything else, the zombies have attacked or global war has destroyed the infrastructure and you’d expect to see rows of it stacked in the garages belonging to preppers. But in Hawaii, Spam is not seen in the same light and, although there is no longer the same need for an easily affordable substitute for ‘real’ meat, it remains part of their culinary heritage and consumption cuts across the social and cultural strata. As food writer and historian Rachel Laudan writes, in her book The Food of Paradise, ‘to take on Spam is to pick at all the ethnic and economic seams of Hawaii’ of which more later.

These little cans released millions of people from the monotony of dried, salted meats, the only other option where fresh meat spoiled all too easily and whilst it might once have been a godsend during times of privation nowadays, local people choose to eat it. In fact, Hawaiians know what the rest of us are slowly realising: Spam is a perfect ingredient for proprietors of food trucks, those ex-bankers who got out and sunk their savings into a silvered dream machine selling dirty burgers and poshed-up musubi.

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SPAM musubi: image courtesy of Hormel Company

Obama is no food snob, ordering Spam musubi during his last Hawaiian sojourn before becoming president and the product can be found on islander McDonald and Burger King menus, (ask for Hawaiian steak) or visit Tikiiniki, owned by former rocker Todd Rundgren and his wife Michelle where the Iniki hamburgers are made from beef and Spam ground together. According to Rundgren, the writing of his famous hit ‘Hello, it’s me’ was fuelled by copious platefuls of Spam about which he said, in an interview, “is better than a hotdog because it doesn’t have any snouts or anuses in it.” A taste for Spam musubi is apparently one of the things which separates the ‘real’ Hawaiians from the tourists and this mash-up of Asian and islander culture comes neatly wrapped up in nori and ready to eat on the go. Recently, Hormel even introduced a teriyaki-flavored Spam product to encourage consumers to eat more Musubi and if you want your baby to resemble the food on its parents plate, why not dress it up in a musubi baby costume? There’s a yearly festival in Waikiki known as Spam Jam Hawaii, too.

You can trace Spam’s journey from the army mess and store cupboards into the kitchens of Japanese, Filipino, and Korean immigrants to Hawaii too who, among many others, became enamoured of it- indeed if you visited the Philippines in the last six months, you may well have eaten Spam at a local restaurant, SpamJam. The tiny island of Guam (where there is a huge US naval base, built after the liberation of the island from the Japanese) boasts an astonishing rate of consumption of more than sixteen cans per person per year; more than any other nation per capita, and has hosted the annual Spam games. After the Second World War, the  Chamorros of Guam had no homes to return to, malnutrition was rife and refugee camps had to be built where food rations, including spam and corned beef, were passed out by American forces. Spam has become part of the local cuisine and dishes such as Spam kelaguen where it is chopped then mixed with lemon juice, diced onions, and local hot pepper have evolved. Colonised three times over the last 400 years, Guam and Spam exist in a relationship marked with mixed feelings as American forces continues to ‘militarily occupy’ what their leaders refer to as an unincorporated territory of the USA and in this context, some Chamorro people see Spam as a symbol of cultural oppression and one of the causes of rising heart disease and diabetes caused by high-fat, high-salt and sugar diets.

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Eating Spam during the Korean war: image via americanwwii.com

The popularity of SPAM with Koreans is an interesting circular process with roots in the Korean War: American soldiers introduced the meat to well-connected Koreans where it became a popular status food after a lengthy period of Japanese rule and a severe proxy war had left Korea with severe shortages. Displaced Koreans living in villages decimated by war also supplemented meagre food supplies with handouts of food from US Army bases. Upon immigration into Hawaii, those same Koreans continued to eat and cook with Spam whilst their relatives back in Korea consume it at such a rate,they are now the second largest market.Spam is so popular in South Korea, it is sold in special gift packs which have become a common hostess gift; I’ve spent several sojourns in South Korea and can recall market stalls selling Spam-branded t shirts and school bags, alongside those gift packs.

When offshore fishing was temporarily halted in the Hawaiian islands during the Second World War and restrictions places upon movement between the islands, the islanders were ever more dependent upon the charms of this canned meat. Some historians claim that Spam’s popularity has more to do with the restrictions placed upon Japanese-Hawaiian deep-sea fishing operations by the American government in the years leading up to the Second World War. The Hawaiian islands were home to so many people of Japanese descent that it was unfeasible to intern them all in camps as happened in the contiguous, states: internment had the potential to be ruinous to the island economy but the Japanese still had to feed themselves and their families, deprived as they were of the fish and seafood that had until recently augmented their diets.

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Korean army stew (budae jjigae)

As often happens during times of privation, members of the forces take advantage of local food shortages to make a buck or three and local people experimented with what food they did have, using SPAM to replace the pork or fish which also became hard to come by during the war. Spam soon appeared cubed and sliced in noodles, in sushi and stir-fry. Ever versatile, Spam was substituted for the beef in Korean bulgogi, a dietary love brought back by American soldiers stationed in South Korea and these tastes survive today. In LA, chef Roy Choi makes his version of “army stew”  (budae jjigae) at POT, his restaurant inside the Line Hotel where a bubbling pot of anchovy broth, pork stock, noodles and Spam keeps the clientele happy. Other versions of Korean Army Stew include slashed hot dogs, ground meat and sweet potato noodles which grow fat and slippery in the gochujang and kimchi- infused broth. Also known as Johnson Tang soup it is an eclectic mix of army rations and centuries-old Korean foodstuffs and the city of Uijeongbu retains its fame for good budae jjigae because of its high concentration of U.S. military personnel.

Spam’s texture lends itself well to the carving knife making it useful for sushi making and it absorbs and holds onto other stronger flavours. Chefs from Hawaii, such as Jovi Magdual, are fascinated by the challenge of blending different foods- Island, Asian and American- into a brand new and eclectic cuisine. “It’s not gimmick food, we’re adding different flavours from different cultures. Pineapple is tropical in a tropical climate and, if ham, then why not SPAM?” he says and other chefs in Hawaii are coming up with new spam concoctions all the time. At Da Kitchen even dessert has become an excuse for serving more spam in the form of pineapple spam upside-down cake.

Hawaiian-raised chef-owner Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco has been hailed as one of the new breed of chefs who use Spam in interesting ways, refusing to turn their backs on what was, and is, an important part of island culinary history. Kapur makes his own SPAM, grinding a mix of high-quality pork shoulder, ham and seasonings, and then steaming it in a rectangular pan to ensure the finished item has that characteristic Hormel shape. Added to rice alongside shrimp, furikake, uni and abalone mushrooms, the result is a high-low fried rice. For customers in the know, the restaurant also serves Spam over rice with spicy mayo, furikake and pickled cucumbers, off-menu.

Across the Atlantic in London, Chef Jeremy Pang who runs School of Wok, opened Cha Chaan Teng in Holborn last year and serves up coconut-encrusted spam with fried egg and wanton in a noodle broth and a crispy spam & fried quail egg crusty roll accompanied by sriracha and pickles, which he says are “a deliberately inauthentic and playful interpretation of the hugely popular Hong Kong cha chaan teng diners that took the region by storm in the 1950s.” (Read a more expansive interview with Jeremy Pang, here)

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Chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi was born and raised in Mānoa Valley and is co-founder of The Pili Group, LUNCHBOX, and the former Mission Social Hall & Cafe. He agreed to chat with me about Spam and whether it still has cultural relevance for him and his customers. Whilst he says that it is only prepared for sale at Lunchbox, a cafe for Hawaiian Airlines employees, and not sold at his other businesses, he admits customers there are ‘stoked’ when they discover that Spam is on the cafe menu. And like most chefs, his own professional creed of cooking local, responsibly-made food means that while he feels there is an important need to “make smart choices about what we consume”, he admits that “when you get out of a kitchen at 1am your choices are limiting. Many of us congregate at a favourite watering hole, and SPAM… is plentiful. Usually in a musubi or fried rice or fried noodle form.”

Chef Noguchi has used Spam professionally though. “At my first restaurant, He`eia Kea Pier, we made our musubi by simmering Spam in a teriyake tare until it caramelized and coated the Spam. Then we would make our musubi with it, and that’s still my favourite,” he says.

“Shirokiya at Ala Moana makes an awesom Spam musubi and MW Restaurant has an off-menu item they save for their VIP’s. It’s a house-made Spam (basically a country-style pork terrine.) Out of all the people trying to make Spam, they come the closest. Spam gets its unique flavor and texture because of the specific way they package it in the can and then pressure steam/cook it.”

“So although Spam may have a bad rap as a processed, high sodium food, I think it’s important to understand how food came to Hawaii,” Chef Noguchi explains, firmly rejecting food snobbery. “Spam became ubiquitous in our home because of World War Two, it’s part of our culture. Hawai`i’s demographic’s have changed, and so has our palates; however I still believe in celebrating our foods of the past (including Spam,) and understanding why it’s a part of our heritage.”

The myriad of ways in which Spam is consumed provides us with a fascinating and fruitful example of culinary derring-do as cooks and chefs take their national histories, marked by culinary privation caused by colonialism, migration and war, and blend them with a new and creative use of ingredients. The chefs I spoke to who use it seem to come from a sincere place; their use of Spam borne from nostalgia, personal history and a desire to forge new gustatory connections, rather than a place of daring or punk attitude. They aren’t using Spam to shock and awe, or garner click-bait headlines via the ‘othering’ of an ingredient which we should remember, may have helped save those lives rendered precarious, during and after the Second World War. However, if you’ve bought a tin, tried it and still don’t like the taste or texture, you can always follow the frugal example of American soldiers during the Second World War who inked slices of Spam to use as playing cards. They were able to play poker with them for several months before the ‘cards’ expired. That may or may not dismay you.

 References and useful reading:

Ann Kondo Corum. Hawaii’s Spam Cook Book, Bess Press, 1987

Guam Loves Spam on Pri’s ‘The World’ report by Mark Kay Magistad.

, Local: contextualising Hawaii’s Foodways, Published online,  427-435

Arnold Hiura, Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture in the Hawaiian Islands (Honolulu: Watermark Publishing, 2009

Rachel Laudan, The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawai‘i’s Culinary Heritage (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1996)

 Chef Mark Noguchi on pre-c0ntact food in Hawaii

Amy Reddinger, “Eating “Local’: The Politics of Post-Statehood Hawaiian Cookbooks,” Nordic Journal of English Studies, vol. 9, no. 3 (2010): 67-87

Julie Wan on Korean army stew for WaPo.

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9 thoughts on “The story of spam

    1. I did and it was really good: all the textures, all the flavours. Decided to keep posts for my blog so I can ramble away to my hearts content and explore all the culinary cull de sacs.

  1. I should have but I get really tired of all the hassle. And don’t even get me started on the pita of dealing with US tax arrangements, electronic signatures and endless scanning of documents (which they then claim to have not received). British food writing doesn’t seem too fussed about long form either so that’s flogging a dead horse.

    1. Thanks so much. I was nervous about writing about Hawaii and its food because it is so complicated so I am really stoked by the response. x

  2. I don’t mean to be picky – but (!) “lettuce and tomatoes and peaches” on Boxing Day, 1943 in England? I seriously doubt that, all veg was seasonal at that time and none of those things would have been available. I can still recall the thrill of the first Jersey Royal potatoes in April, the first tomatoes in July and imported peaches in June.

    As for Spam, I have always gagged when it has been served up on my plate.

    1. The peaches were probably canned and most certainly available on ration if you saved your coupons. She was a grocers daughter. Lettuces were grown in gardens year-round (winter varieties, I recall my grandparents growing them year round, covered and protected) and she doesn’t specify whether the tomatoes are preserved via canning or bottling or fresh.

      It’s her quote and her memories. Not presented as evidence-based fact.

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