Read Ted Genoways’ response to this article, “Spam’s Shame.”
On a recent cross-country road trip, I visited the Hormel Foods factory and neighboring Spam Museum in Austin, Minn. The air surrounding the factory smells just like Spam. If you’re like most Americans, you’re probably gagging at the thought of Spam-scented air. I say, take another sniff. Because if you set aside Spam’s longstanding reputation as a pink, slimy, salty block of sodium, you just might smell something you want to eat.
Why, America, do we treat Spam like the school outcast who’s just too square for our liking? We’ve been buddy-buddy with hot dogs and pepperoni for ages just because they’re the sporty meats at carnivore college. If more people gave Spam a chance, they’d see that it not only tastes better than hot dogs, it also aligns quite nicely with current foodie trends. They’d also see that it’s an exciting ingredient with boundless culinary potential. (Hint: You’re an idiot if you eat it straight out of the can.)
The only part of the country that fully appreciates Spam’s promise is not Hormel’s home state of Minnesota but Hawaii, where the canned meat is served and loved everywhere from fast-food restaurants to an annual “Spam Jam” street festival. Spam might not seem like a traditional island food, but Hawaiians know a good thing when they see it, and Spam has been a Hawaiian favorite for almost as long as the iconic canned meat has existed.
Spam hit grocery shelves in 1937, distinguishing itself from other brands of ready-to-eat canned ham with a clutchable can size and relatively short ingredient list. (Ironically, given its current reputation, Spam was intended to be a higher-quality alternative to the other tinned mystery meats on the market.) When war broke out a few years later, the U.S. military distributed it to GIs since it was inexpensive and filling, didn’t spoil, and shipped easily. “For every soldier who swore he would never eat Spam again and stuck to it, there seemed to be two who became Spam customers as a result of being introduced to it during the war,” writes Carol Wyman in Spam: A Biography. Meanwhile, on the home front, consumers, otherwise mostly meat-deprived, could use their ration stamps to buy Spam on a limited basis. In a Hawaii, which was geographically isolated and faced food shipping interruptions during the war, Spam was a godsend, says Arnold Hiura, a food historian and author of Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands.
After the war, Spam remained a practical source of nourishment for Hawaii’s mid-20th-century sugar and pineapple plantation workers because it didn’t need to be refrigerated and could sit out in the sun in a lunch pail without rotting. It was a common food among Hawaii’s Japanese, Chinese, Korean Filipino, Portuguese, and Puerto Rican workers—an edible analog to Hawaiian Creole English, the shared dialect that had developed decades earlier. Plus, salty Spam was the perfect complement to rice, a staple of the Hawaiian diet, and a cheap way to get meat on the table in a state with a high cost of living.
Hawaii’s plantation era is over, but Spam’s still a local darling, a reminder of a different time. On the islands, there’s no shame in eating Spam. On the contrary, you’re kind of weird if you don’t like it. Hawaii consumes more Spam per capita than any other state, with five cans eaten per person per year—about 7 million cans total—according to Nicole L. Behne, a Spam senior product manager.