SPAM: A Mystery behind the Mystery Meat

I don’t like spam. I’m sure that you don’t either. Oh, you thought I was claiming an abrupt hatred for the canned ‘miracle meat’? Oh no. I am claiming hatred towards the unsolicited email that builds up inside your inbox over the weekend when you forget to check it. I love SPAM. Yes, I know that SPAM is far from a symbol of sophistication but whether you like the taste or not; no one can deny the cultural influence and history that the canned luncheon meat commonly known as SPAM has had.

The truth is, the history of SPAM is almost as interesting as the meat found inside that rectangular can. Eleven years after Geo. A. Hormel & Co came out with the nation’s first ‘canned ham,’ the founder’s son Jay C. Hormel unveiled a new canned meat product that didn’t require refrigeration. The canned meat (initially marketed as “Hormel Spiced Ham”) was intended to help increase the sale of pork shoulder meat (which was not a very popular cut at that time). Whether it was a fear of it not requiring refrigeration or the name itself; the product didn’t catch on like they hoped that it would. The market was saturated with canned meat products and something had to be done to generate some business. To generate public attention to the product, Hormel had a contest. The contest offered a $100 prize to anyone who could come up with a catchier name for their product. This would be a win-win for Hormel. They would get publicity through the contest and would thusly have a catchier name that would increase the desirability of the product. Contest winner, Ken Daigneau (brother of a company executive), suggested that they call it SPAM. Only a select few from the what SPAM stands for but some have suggested that it is an acronym for the words ‘shoulder of pork and ham but it is widely considered to just be an abbreviation of the words ‘spiced ham’, my grandpa always said that SPAM stood for “Something Posting as Meat”.

The newly named product hit shelves mid-1937 with a huge national advertising blitz campaign that touted the canned product appropriate meat to cook for any meal. In 1940 Hormel revolutionized the adverting industry with what experts consider to be the first ‘singing commercial’ jingle. The lyrics were simple enough but the lyrics carried the same weight that they do nowadays, it was catchy. “SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM/Hormel’s new miracle meat in a can!/Tastes fine, saves time/If you want something grand/Ask for SPAM!” The new advertising campaign found the company becoming a major sponsor for a popular radio show starring George Burns and Gracie Allen, and during their radio spots introduced the listeners to SPAM’s mascot “SPAMMY the Pig”. While this campaign was successful in getting Americans to storm the shelves to buy SPAM; the men fighting in World War II were storming the beaches with a belly full of SPAM as well. Since you can imagine that fresh meat is difficult to get to the front lines during WWII, SPAM came to the rescue. Since it does not require refrigeration, SPAM became a staple in the diet of a US soldier. Before the end of WWII, 150 million pounds of SPAM was purchased by the military.

We see times where things are rationed during wartime. This was especially true during WWII when things like rubber, metal, clothing, and even food was rationed. American families back home were issued War Ration books that contained stamps good for certain rationed items like sugar, cooking oil, canned goods, and you guessed it — meat. Since SPAM was not subject to any of the wartime rationing, SPAM became a dinner staple in many American houses; but it wasn’t just in America where we found SPAM filling bellies. Thanks to the Lend-Lease Act (a US program that provided aid to the Allied powers during WWII) and other WWII rationing, SPAM gained its popularity throughout the world when countries were faced with food restrictions. SPAM grew a great distinction of being a ‘wartime delicacy’ as referred to by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said that “without SPAM we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.” SPAM seemed to follow the war around the world; and with the occupations of Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa, the Philippines, and other islands in the Pacific during and after WWII, the soldiers brought SPAM with them. The canned meat was absorbed into the native diets and has shown to have a huge cultural impact in the Pacific islands. Spam is such a popular item that it is nicknamed ‘the Hawaiian steak’ and is sold in large chain restaurants like Burger King. SPAM also found itself in traditional dishes like sushi and musubi where SPAM is placed on a formed square of rice and wrapped in nori (seaweed). This is a form of onigiri and even though most Americans identify this as sushi (due to it being similar to nigirizushi or nigiri) it is not.

The canned meat was absorbed into the native diets, and has shown to have a huge cultural impact in the Pacific islands. SPAM has had a cultural impact all around the world. We Americans love the salty canned meat for its affordability and extended shelf life; SPAM has a HUGE following in South Korea. Because of a scarcity of fish and a surfeit of SPAM during the Korean War in both North and South Korea, traditional dishes like kimbap had the fish (or other traditional items) replaced with SPAM. In South Korea SPAM outweighs Coca-Cola and KFC in the realm of popularity in South Korea because of its rich history and influence. But SPAM’s pop culture and gastronomical influence is seen throughout the world. After its popularity during the time of World War II, SPAM’s popularity just continued to grow. From the still popular dishes found throughout the world SPAM museum in Austin, Minnesota to Hawaii’s Spam Jam which is held in Waikiki in the last week of April to Spam one of the most hilarious and memorable skits on the iconic Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Monty Python’s full fledged Spamalot musical to Weird Al Yankovic’s REM “Stand” parody titled “Spam” to the three cans inside my pantry; there is no denying that SPAM has had its fair share of influence in both the Pop Culture and culinary worlds.



Images:

Email Spam folder attributed to creator, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=100061

Featured Image: Can of SPAM by Cypher789, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31348207

World War II War Ration Book No 3, front circa 1943 accredited to Bill Faulk – Scan of original documents in collection of author, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2595330

Spam ad from Ladies Home Journal circa 1948 attributed to Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14742766936/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/ladieshomejourna65janwyet/ladieshomejourna65janwyet#page/n278/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43984323

SPAM Musubi by bandita – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cosmic_bandita/1180353174/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7570612

SPAM Can in the SPAM Shack at the SPAM Museum attributed to Lorie Shaull from Washington, United States – Spam Can in the Spam Shack, SPAM Museum, Austin MN, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58457579

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