Spam, that pre-processed meat that was born during World War Two, is getting some new love:
When most people think about Spam, the phrase “gourmet cooking” doesn’t come to mind. The processed pork-meat product looks about as unappetizing as the phrase “commodity meat” sounds, and as Marination’s Kamala Saxton told Esquire, “it doesn’t check any of the boxes of ethically sourced, local, healthy, or organic.” In other words, Spam would seem a really bad fit for modern foodie culture.
Or is it? Chefs across the country are reintroducing Spam to American palettes, often in recipes that call for pork. Saxton’s food truck, for example, makes Spam sliders that won over customers because “the combination of the saltiness of the Spam on a Hawaiian sweet roll with the combination of our slaw” was too good to resist.
At Dale Talde’s Brooklyn restaurant, he serves a version of shrimp and grits made with smoked Spam as a tribute to his mother’s Filipino-American cooking. Spam is even Top Chef-approved, as recent champion Brooke Williamson serves Spam musubi at her L.A. eatery, Da Kikokiko.
So what is Spam?
Spam was introduced by Hormel in 1937. Ken Daigneau, brother of a company executive, won a $100 prize that year in a competition to name the new item.Hormel claims that the meaning of the name “is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives”, but popular beliefs are that the name is an abbreviation of “spiced ham”, “spare meat”, or “shoulders of pork and ham”. Another popular explanation is that Spam is an acronym standing for “Specially Processed American Meat” or “Specially Processed Army Meat”.
The difficulty of delivering fresh meat to the front during World War II saw Spam become a ubiquitous part of the U.S. soldier’s diet. It became variously referred to as “ham that didn’t pass its physical”, “meatloaf without basic training”, and “Special Army Meat”. Over 150 million pounds of Spam were purchased by the military before the war’s end.
During World War II and the occupations which followed, Spam was introduced into Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa, the Philippines, and other islands in the Pacific. Immediately absorbed into native diets, it has become a unique part of the history and effects of U.S. influence in the Pacific.
As a consequence of World War II rationing and the Lend-Lease Act, Spam also gained prominence in the United Kingdom. British prime minister during the 1980s Margaret Thatcher later referred to it as a “wartime delicacy”. In addition to increasing production for the U.K., Hormel expanded Spam output as part of Allied aid to the similarly beleaguered Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev declared: “Without Spam we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army”. Throughout the war, countries ravaged by the conflict and faced with strict food rations came to appreciate Spam.
Spam was one of the first foods made popular by the war:
Canned ham was a reasonably successful Hormel product, but Jay Hormel wanted to get some use out of an underutilized cut of meat — pork shoulders. At first, Spam was made entirely of shoulder meat. Hormel introduced the ham/shoulder blend later. Actor Kenneth Daigneau coined the Spam name in a naming contest at a New Year’s Eve party [source: Wyman]. Hormel claims that the word is a blend of the words “spiced ham,” though Spam lovers and haters have suggested many other meanings and acronyms over the decades. On May 11, 1937, Spam was officially born when Hormel registered a trademark for the name.
By prominently featuring the brand name on the packaging and spending lavishly on advertising, Hormel succeeded in making Spam a household product in the United States. However, it was World War II that cemented Spam’s reputation in its home country and introduced the product to consumers around the world. Before the United States entered the war, Spam and other foods were shipped to Allied countries as part of the lend-lease program. When U.S. soldiers went to Europe and the Pacific, they carried Spam in their K-rations [source: Wyman]. Or did they?
Most of the Spam eaten by soldiers was actually government meat that was canned by Hormel and other companies that were under contract to the military. Only a few soldiers received genuine Spam [source: Wyman]. Nevertheless, to the soldiers it was Spam that they came to know and hate. They felt like they had Spam for every meal and ran out of ways to prepare it. The universal dislike — they wrote songs about how much they hated the stuff — probably had less to do with the actual taste of Spam than with how often they were forced to eat it.
Regardless of their opinion on Spam during the war, soldiers who returned to the United States when the war was over brought a taste for Spam with them. With the aid of an advertising blitz, Spam sales increased after the war [source: Wyman].
Of course, Spam has been maligned since then:
Internet geeks didn’t help its reputation:
Apparently, the first people to make the connection between repetitive SPAM and repetitive email were enormous geeks, by which we mean to say they were players in “multi-user dungeons,” or very early predecessors of games like World of Warcraft. Brad Templeton, who has done meticulous research on the topic, writes: “The term spamming got used to apply to a few different behaviors. One was to flood the computer with too much data to crash it. Another was to “˜spam the database’ by having a program create a huge number of objects, rather then creating them by hand. And the term was sometimes used to mean simply flooding a chat session with a bunch of text inserted by a program (commonly called a “˜bot’ today) or just by inserting a file instead of your own real time typing output. When the ability to input a whole file to the chat system was implemented, people would annoy others by dumping the words to the Monty Python SPAM Song. Another report describes indirectly a person simply typing “˜spam, spam…’ in a Multi User Domain with a keyboard macro until being thrown off around 1985.”
But now, perhaps, it’s time to give the little canned meat that could some props. So dig in!
Some vintage Spam recipes.