Spam is cool.
The 85-year-old canned meat block has undergone a cultural reinvention.
Hormel (HRL) has sold a record amount of spam for seven consecutive years, and 2022 is about to hit another such milestone. The conglomerate behind Skippy and Jennie-O Turkey says it can’t produce spam fast enough and is ramping up production capacity.
Spam is a trending ingredient on TikTok and on the menu of fine dining restaurants in coastal towns. In 2019, a limited edition Pumpkin Spice Spam flavor sold out in minutes. (You can still buy it on Ebay, where it costs up to $100 per box.)
What is behind this phenomenon? Why does this slice of cooked pork that has long been stigmatized as fake meat, tied to wartime rations and hilariously usurped on Monty Python, now have cachet with foodies?
Spam’s popularity in Hawaiian, Asian, and Pacific Island cuisine influenced its growth in the United States. As more immigrants arrived in the United States and fusion dishes and ethnic cuisines entered the cultural mainstream, spam reached new, younger foodies, say Hormel, food analysts and researchers .
Bold and clever ad campaigns have also helped spam attract a wider following than the baby boomers who grew up eating it, sometimes grudgingly.
“Spam has undergone a reputational overhaul,” said Robert Ku, associate professor of Asian and Asian American studies at Binghamton University and author of “Dubious Gastronomy: Eating Asian in the USA.” “A lot of celebrity chefs have been Asian and Asian American, and they’ve reintroduced spam to a new audience.”
More than 100,000 visitors flock to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn., each year with spam stories to tell and recipes to share, said Savile Lord, director of the museum in the brand’s hometown. Visitors most often ask him and other museum “Spambassadors” how Spam got its name and what’s in it.
Spam first appeared in 1937 as a convenient, durable 12-ounce, 25-cent protein in a tin can during the lean years of the Great Depression. The spam only contained pork shoulder, chopped ham, water, sugar and sodium.
It was a concoction of George Hormel and his son, Jay, meat packers in Austin. The Hormels had been working on the “problem of canning a non-perishable pork product for many years and we finally solved it,” Jay told The New Yorker in 1945.
They offered a $100 prize for the best name for food. It had to be short for display purposes and fit on one-column newspaper ads. It also had to be pronounceable in any language.
A corporate executive’s brother threw out “Spam”, a combination of “spice” and “ham”, at a party, and Hormel “knew then and there that the name was perfect”.
From the start, spam was marketed as a time-saver and food for every meal: spam and eggs. Spam and pancakes. Spam and beans, spaghetti, macaroni and crackers. Spamwiches.
“You never would have imagined that a meat could be transformed into so many interesting uses. Morning, noon or evening – cold or hot – spam is here!” read an early advertisement. Spam was a “miracle meat” , the company told consumers in newspaper spots and radio ads.
And then came the United States’ entry into World War II in 1941, the watershed moment in the growth of spam.
In many Pacific outposts, which had little refrigeration or local sources of meat, American and Allied troops relied on canned meat that could be stored for months and eaten on the go.
Hormel says more than £100 million of spam was shipped overseas to help feed troops during the war. Uncle Sam became known as Uncle Spam, much to the dismay of the troops forced to eat it every day.
“During World War II, of course, I ate my share of spam along with millions of other soldiers,” Dwight D. Eisenhower later wrote to Hormel’s president. “I’ll even confess to a few disparaging remarks about it – uttered during the strain of battle.”
For citizens of conflict-torn nations in the Pacific struggling with hunger and starvation during the war and Reconstruction years, however, spam was a symbol of access to American goods and services. Sometimes it was the only source of protein available. After the departure of American troops, spam remained, becoming an ingredient in local dishes.
“Spam has become part of Asian culture,” said Ayalla Ruvio, a consumer behavior researcher at Michigan State University who studies consumer identity and habits. “It represented a piece of America. It’s like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s.
American troops also 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 dishes almost anywhere American soldiers were stationed, such as Guam, Philippines and Okinawa, Japan.
In Hawaii, where the US military has long been a major presence, more spam is consumed per person than any other state. It is piled on a block of rice and wrapped in seaweed to make Spam musubi and sold in fast food chains like McDonald’s in Hawaii. There is even an annual Waikiki Spam Jam festival.
Many American soldiers returning from World War II swore never to eat spam again, and the brand became linked to rationing and economic hardship. But spam has seduced new consumers in the United States in recent years.
“As I started coming into the brand, we started to notice this transition to a stronger multicultural set of consumers,” said Brian Lillis, who was product brand manager for six years. “They brought with them the traditions of using the product in their country of origin or where their ancestors may have come from.”
Hormel has worked with Korean, Taiwanese and Vietnamese restaurant chefs to get menu spam. As more people discover these dishes, they go home and try to create their own versions, Lillis said.
Spam highlights its versatility in social media dishes and television commercials. There are ads for spam and eggs, as well as spam fried rice, spam musabi, yakitori, and poke.
Spam has made a comeback in the United States because Asian and Asian-American chefs such as Chris Oh have tried to reinvent it in their own way, said Ku, a professor at Binghamton University. “They brought in some of the culinary influences from Asia and the Pacific and enhanced them.”