A Brief History of Spam

When my husband and I got hitched, we lived on Spam luncheon meat for the first couple of years of our marriage, along with some other questionable foodstuffs like Vienna Sausages, and potted meat. Compared to those items, Spam, made by Hormel Foods, was a gourmet treat for us. Popular for its high protein content, salty essence, and low cost, Spam has been an affordable addition to the family pantry since World War II, where it was introduced into the islands of the South Pacific.

Since fresh meat was difficult to get to the soldiers on the front, World War II saw the largest use of Spam when it was eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and over 150 million pounds of Spam were purchased by the military before the war’s end. The surplus of leftover Spam, with its long shelf life and low cost eventually made its way into native diets, and today Spam is one of the largest selling food items in the state of Hawaii.

In a land bountiful with fresh fish, tropical fruits and vegetables, it seems odd that Spam would play such a large role in the Hawaiian diet, but it does. Several years ago I took a trip to Hawaii where I discovered just how important Spam is to that part of the world. At a local grocery store there was an aisle with shelves jam-packed with Spam, in many varieties and flavors, and a man about my age was stocking the shelves fervently. When I asked him about the popularity of Spam, he explained that Spam to Hawaiians is like peanut butter and jelly is to mainlanders. While I walked to grammar school carrying a PB&J sandwich in a brown paper sack, he was toting a Spam sandwich. He told me that he and his family ate Spam every day and that it was a staple in his household.

During the war, Spam became the butt of jokes amongst the soldiers. Calling it “meatloaf without basic training” and “ham that didn’t pass its physical”, most soldiers wouldn’t go near a can of Spam once they returned to the States. And that included my stepfather, who was a pilot in the Pacific theater during the war. “There is no Spam allowed in this house!” he would affirm to my mother, and indeed, no Spam passed his lips after the war ended in 1945.

We used to call Spam “mystery meat” when I was younger, but Spam is actually made with six simple ingredients: Pork shoulder, ham, salt, water, potato starch, and sugar. That’s it. It contains 174 calories per serving, 15 grams of fat, 7 grams of protein, and a whopping 767 milligrams of sodium – perhaps not the best choice if you’re on a low sodium diet. But for the rest of us, Spam is still a lost cost, high protein convenience food.

In 1970, the 2-billionth can of Spam was produced, and the same year, Spam made its television debut on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And as Spam gained its “kitschy” popularity, a Spam Museum opened in Austin, Minnesota, where Spam is produced. For over 12 years, the Spam Museum delighted over one million visitors with exhibits and tastings of this beloved American classic. The museum closed in 2014, but, plans for a new, improved Spam museum are in the works. The new museum is relocating and reopening in downtown Austin in 2016.

My daughter gave me a Spam cookbook one year for my birthday, and I experimented with some of the recipes. Spam Stir Fry was pretty good, and Spam Apple Turnovers wrapped in puff pastry were excellent. But I still think the best way to enjoy Spam is to simply fry it in a pan and serve it with eggs and toast for breakfast, or maybe fried potatoes for dinner.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


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