It was the wee hours of a particularly blurry night in a friend’s kitchen during my senior year of college. As tends to happen in these situations, another friend declared his intention to cook for us in order to stave off the post-booze aftermath. In no position to decline, I applauded his bravery and asked what he planned to whip up. “SPAM fried rice,” he said. My response, I recall with some measure of regret, was so singularly dismissive: Ew.
How little I knew. The moment the SPAM, cubed and fried in a sugar-and-soy sauce concoction, hit my taste buds I knew I’d been a fool, for this was a savory treat, a slightly saltier version of ham. It’s terrible for you, obviously, regardless of those who point out its simplified ingredient list. But SPAM was so clearly an acceptable culinary option that I was surprised I’d been so heavily conditioned against it for all my life. I wasn’t alone, either—over the next few years, I found that nearly all of my friends would react with the same, automatic dismissal whenever I casually chanced the possibility of heading to the corner store, grabbing a can, and pulling together a meal. After sampling the finished product, they’d immediately recant.
IT MIGHT BE HARD to believe, but SPAM was inspired by progressive politics. It was invented before World War II as a way to create profits so that the Hormel Foods Company could afford to pay its workers year-round—a break from typical meat-packing tradition, in which workers were laid off during the slow parts of the year. Processed into giant loaves that were sliced and sold at the deli, Hormel decided to re-brand SPAM with a specific name and packaging in order to distinguish itself from all of the copycats of the era. (One suggested name was “Brunch,” which would’ve forever changed the balance of human history.) Instead, the name was derived as a portmanteau for “Shoulder of Pork and Ham,” both the key ingredients and an innovation at a time when pork shoulder was commonly discarded because of the difficulty in separating it from the bone.
While arguably grosser products like pork brains and gravy or scrapple sit in the shadows, SPAM is looking for a fight.
When the war began, SPAM was quickly conscripted as a ration because of its ability to maintain in extreme temperatures. Because of this, its appeal went global: SPAM is still beloved in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Guam, places with high temperatures where the U.S. maintained a military presence after the war. It’s an intensely popular product in Hawaii, where it’s commonly cooked into musubi, a Japanese food in which a slice of SPAM is sandwiched between two layers of rice and wrapped in seafood. (You may remember when it was used to prove, once and for all, that President Obama was not a Muslim.)
But here in the continental U.S., at least on the coasts and in major cities, SPAM still produces that reflexive yucch. King Noodle, a restaurant in Brooklyn, offers a SPAM-fried rice dish. According to owner Nick Subic, it’s not one of the more popular items on the menu. “It is a hard sell for a lot of people,” he said over email. The easiest explanation is that in its uncooked and most familiar form, SPAM looks kind of gross. Most people have been well-trained to throw out their deli meat as soon as it gets a little slimy, but SPAM slides out accompanied by a smidge of gelatinous liquid—an unwanted byproduct of how SPAM is cooked inside the can during the factory production process—and plops onto the plate with a not entirely pleasant sound or feel. Test it out and see if you don’t shudder.
And yet, according to the Hormel Foods Corporation, SPAM hit the eight billion cans produced mark in 2011 and is on track to sell nine billion by 2017. That SPAM inspires such ubiquitous distaste while enjoying such robust sales seems a rarity. Sure, you can point to something like the McDonald’s McRib as an example of a food that the public enjoys in spite of itself, but SPAM has been a part of America since FDR’s second administration. As Carolyn Wyman puts it in her book, Spam: A Biography, “Spam subsequently transcended its gastronomic origins to become a symbol of American popular culture on a level with Elvis and baseball. Its place in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is proof of that.”
SUCH CULTURALLY INGRAINED DISLIKE must be explainable beyond “it looks gross.” While SPAM is not the only processed meat product in the supermarket, it is the most visible. That’s because Hormel is still dedicated to advertising SPAM, introducing characters like Sir Can-A-Lot and products like the SPAM Meal for One (in varieties like SPAM & Red Beans With Rice or SPAM & Sausage Jambalaya) and the SPAM Single (yes, a single slice of SPAM sealed for the lonely customer). “They never let it relegate to the status of, ‘We’ll just let it sit there and gather dust and whoever is going to buy it will buy it,’” Wyman told me. While arguably grosser products like pork brains and gravy or scrapple sit in the shadows, SPAM is looking for a fight.
Attitudes could also have been passed down through successive generations. In World War II, the constant inclusion of SPAM—or SPAM knockoffs—in war rations earned mixed reviews as the months dragged on. In Wyman’s book, she collects some reviews from unenthused soldiers: “ham that didn’t pass its physical,” “meat loaf without basic training,” “the real reason war was hell.” Soldiers who came home sick of the stuff might’ve imparted a healthy disgust to their children, and their children’s children after that. The famous Monty Python SPAM sketch, for example, was written by comedians whose parents had almost certainly been exposed to enough SPAM through military rations doled out to British citizens during the war. Eventually, from Monty Python’s fame amongst a particular type of computer nerd came the name for the ubiquitously annoying pieces of extraneous emails we receive every day: Spam, an association so powerful it’s built into mail services like Google Mail. “What’s basically happened is different generations of people heard about SPAM and they may never have eaten it,” Wyman said.
It’s enough to make one wonder why Hormel has never attempted litigation against such official codification. It’s better to be infamous than invisible, you might say, and Hormel has been a good sport about the cultural association. They’ve played up the Monty Python link and freely admit that a feeling of goofiness is inherent to SPAM’s appeal. As one of SPAM’s publicists told me over email, “The SPAM® brand is woven into the fabric of America as an iconic and well-loved brand, with a passionate community that matches its sense of humor and fun-loving energy.” It wouldn’t be very humorous, then, to shove lawsuits at every enterprise that poked a little fun at this eminently pokeable product.
Besides, there are other reasons to disdain SPAM apart from the way it tastes and looks. At Slate, Ted Genoways wrote an impassioned take on Hormel’s questionable labor and environmental practices, which are as problematic as any corporate factory farm’s. The quantity of fat and calories in every can makes it a cagey buy for lower income families who need to save a buck, and don’t care about what their food looks like. In this regard, SPAM is just as dangerous as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, or any other foodstuff associated with obesity and cancer when consumed in large quantities. Then again, you can’t hold Hormel solely responsible for creating the conditions in which SPAM might become a primary food group. If we accept that consumption of anything in moderate, self-controlled quantities is the responsible way to live, then there’s no reason to immediately turn up your nose when you see SPAM on the menu. If you’re still ambivalent, having a drink might help.