From War Food To “cool” Product: The History Of Spam

From War Food To “cool” Product: The History Of Spam

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(WABNEWS Business) — Spam is “cool.”

This block of canned meat that has existed for no less than 85 years has undergone a cultural reinvention.

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Hormel sold a record amount of Spam for seven consecutive years, and 2022 is on track for another similar milestone. The conglomerate behind Skippy and Jennie-O claims that the production of Spam is not enough and that, therefore, it will increase its 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 pumpkin spice flavored Spam sold out in minutes. (It’s still available on Ebay, where it costs up to $100 a can.)

What is behind this phenomenon? Why is this piece of cooked pork long stigmatized as fake meat, linked to war rations, and hilariously parodied by Monty Python now holding sway among foodies?

Spam’s popularity in Hawaiian, Asian, and Pacific Island cuisine has influenced its growth in the United States. As more immigrants came to the US and fusion dishes and ethnic cuisines became fashionable, spam reached new and younger foodies, Hormel food analysts and researchers say.

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Clever advertising campaigns have also helped Spam appeal to a broader range of customers than the Baby Boomers who grew up eating it, often unwillingly.

“Spam has had 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 Asian and Asian American chefs reintroduced spam to a new audience.”

“Miracle Meat”

More than 100,000 people visit 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 museum “Spambassadors” questions about how the name Spam came about and what the heck it contains.

Spam first hit supermarket shelves in 1937 as a 340-gram protein and cost just 25 cents, making it a convenient, long-lasting can in the lean years of the Great Depression. Spam contained nothing but pork shoulder, minced ham, water, sugar, and sodium.

View of a pie made with Spam brand corned beef, potatoes, spring onions and cream of mushroom soup, 1950s or 1960s. (Photo by Tom Kelley/Getty Images)

It was a blend created by 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,” until they finally solved it, Jay told The New Yorker in 1945.

Afterward, they decided to offer a $100 prize for the best food name. It had to be short for display purposes and to fit into 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” (hot) and “ham” (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 a go-to food for any meal: Spam and eggs. Spam and pancakes. Spam and beans, spaghetti, macaroni and cookies. Spam snacks.

“You never imagined that a meat could have so many interesting uses. Morning, noon, or night, hot or cold, spam hits the spot!” read one early product advertisement Spam is “miracle meat,” the company told consumers in newspaper and radio ads.

And then came the entry of the United States into World War II in 1941, the defining moment for the growth of spam.

In many Pacific outposts, with little refrigeration or few 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 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, made during the heat of battle.”

Yet for citizens of Pacific countries ravaged by conflict, war hunger, and years of rebuilding, 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 Michigan State University consumer behavior researcher who deals with consumer identity and habits. “He represented a piece of America. Like a Coca-Cola or like McDonald’s”.

Brian Kamori and Tina Fonceca work at the SPAM merchandise booth at the Waikiki SPAM JAM Festival on April 5, 2003 in Honolulu, Hawaii (Photo by Phil Mislinski/Getty Images)

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 remained a common ingredient in dishes almost anywhere American soldiers were stationed, including Guam, the Philippines, and Okinawa, Japan.

Hawaii, where the US military has long had 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 is even an annual festival called the Waikiki Spam Jam.

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 in recent years, spam has attracted new consumers in the United States.

“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 tradition of using the product in their country of origin or in the countries of their ancestors.”

Hormel has worked with Korean, Taiwanese and Vietnamese restaurant chefs to include Spam on 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.”

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