Spam is great.
An 85-year-old block of canned meat has undergone a cultural invention.
Hormel ( HRL ) has sold a record amount of Spam for seven years, and 2022 is on pace for another such milestone. The conglomerate behind Skippy and Jennie-O turkey says it can’t make Spam fast enough and is ramping up production.
Spam is a trending ingredient on TikTok and on the menu at gourmet restaurants in coastal towns. In 2019, the limited edition Spam pumpkin spice sold out in minutes. (You can still buy it on Ebay, where it sells for up to $100 a box.)
What is behind this phenomenon? Why is this cooked pork, long stigmatized as fake meat, associated with wartime rations and hilariously spoofed in Monty Python, now so confusing to 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 United States and fusion foods and ethnic cuisines entered the cultural mainstream, Spam reached new, younger foodies, according to Hormel, food analysts and researchers.
Outrageous and clever advertising campaigns have helped Spam appeal to a wider customer base than Baby Boomers, who sometimes eat it unwittingly.
“Spam’s reputation has changed,” said Robert Ku, associate professor of Asian and Asian American studies at Binghamton University and author of Questionable Gastronomy: Asian Food in the United States. “Many celebrity chefs have been Asian and Asian American and reintroduced Spam to a new audience.”
Savile Lord, manager of the museum in the brand’s hometown, said more than 100,000 visitors flock to the Spam museum in Austin, Minnesota each year with stories about Spam and recipes to share. Visitors often ask him and other museum “Spambassadors” how Spam got its name and what’s in it.
Spam first hit shelves in 1937 in the waning years of the Great Depression as a 12-ounce, 25-cent, convenient, long-life protein in a tin can. Spam had nothing but pork shoulder, chopped ham, water, sugar and sodium.
It was a combination of George Hormel and his son Jay, meat packers in Austin. Jay told The New Yorker in 1945 that the Hormel family had been working on the problem of preserving a non-perishable pork product for many years, and at last we had solved it.
They offered a $100 prize for the best name for the dish. It should be short enough to display and suitable for single-column newspaper ads. And it had to be pronounced in any language.
A corporate executive’s brother threw “Spam,” a combination of “spice” and “ham” at a party, and Hormel “knew then and there that the name was perfect.”
From the beginning, Spam was marketed as a time saver and food for any meal: Spam and eggs. Spam and pancakes. Spam and beans, spaghetti, pasta and crackers. Spamwiches.
“You would never have imagined that a piece of meat could be put to such interesting uses. Morning, noon or night—cold or hot—Spam hits the ground running!” read one early ad. Spam was “miracle meat,” the company told consumers in newspaper and radio ads.
And then the US entry into World War II in 1941 was a turning point in the growth of Spam.
In many Pacific outposts with little refrigeration or local sources of meat, American and Allied troops relied on canned meat that could be stored for months and eaten en route.
Hormel says more than 100 million pounds of Spam were shipped overseas to feed the troops during the war. Uncle Sam became known as Uncle Spam, which disturbed the troops who were forced to eat him every day.
Dwight D. Eisenhower later wrote to Hormel’s president: “During World War II, of course, I, along with millions of other soldiers, ate my share of Spam. “I’ll even admit to a few unkind remarks about it—in the heat of battle.”
For citizens of conflict-torn Pacific nations struggling with hunger and scarcity during the war and reconstruction, Spam symbolized access to American goods and services. Sometimes it was the only source of protein available. After the US troops left, Spam remained a staple of local cuisine.
“Spam has become part of Asian culture,” said Ayalla Ruvio, a consumer behavior researcher at Michigan State University who studies identity and consumption habits. “It represented a piece of America. It’s like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s.”
American troops 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 meals almost everywhere U.S. troops are stationed, such as Guam, the Philippines, and Okinawa, Japan.
Hawaii, long a major presence of the US military, consumes more Spam per capita than any other state. It is piled on a block of rice and wrapped in seaweed to make Spam musubi, which is sold at fast-food chains such as McDonald’s in Hawaii. There’s even an annual Waikiki Spam Jam festival.
Many US soldiers returning from World War II vowed never to eat Spam again, and the brand became associated with malnutrition and economic hardship. But Spam has appealed to new consumers in the United States in recent years.
“When I first started coming into the brand, we were starting to make that transition to a stronger multicultural consumer set,” said Brian Lillis, the product’s brand manager for six years. “They brought with them the traditions of using the product in their country or where their ancestors came from.”
Hormel has worked with chefs in Korean, Taiwanese and Vietnamese restaurants to get Spam on menus. Lillis says that as more people become familiar with these dishes, they go home and try to make their own versions.
Spam highlights the versatility of food in social media and television commercials. There are ads for Spam and eggs, as well as Spam fried rice, Spam Musabi, yakitori, and poke.
Ku, a professor at Binghamton University, said Spam has made a comeback in the United States as Asian and Asian-American chefs like Chris Oh try to reinvent it in their own way. “They brought in some of the Asian and Pacific culinary influences and elevated it.”