A Brief History of Spam, an American Meat Icon
For a six-ingredient food product, it’s taken on a life of its own. Spam — the square-shaped mash-up of pork, water, salt, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrate — recently celebrated its 77th anniversary of being alternately maligned, celebrated, musicalized, or the subject of urban legend (one particularly pervasive myth insists that its name is actually an acronym for “Scientifically Processed Animal Matter”). And despite today’s more locavore approach to food and some unkind memories from soldiers who were served Spam during WWII, Spam has entered its third quarter-century on the rise. More than eight billion cans have been sold since the Hormel Corporation unleashed the product in 1937; it’s currently available in 44 countries throughout the world.
Spam’s ability to straddle highbrow and lowbrow is apparently in its DNA: Since its early days, even Jay Hormel, the man who Spam made rich, had a vexed relationship with the lunchmeat. In a 1945 “Talk of the Town” profile published in The New Yorker, Hormel met writer Brendan Gill over noontime drinks, during which Gill “got the distinct impression that being responsible for Spam might be too great a burden on any one man.” The piece sees Hormel waffling on his brand’s association with Spam, spending equal time distancing himself from it (“Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t have…”) and defending it (“Damn it, we eat it in our own home”).
Spam’s ability to straddle highbrow and lowbrow is apparently in its DNA.
The budget-friendly meat has enjoyed a recent upswing on the American mainland in part thanks to rising meat costs and a floundering economy: When the recession hit in early 2008, Spam saw its sales jump 10 percent compared to the previous year. ACBS News report noted that the increased numbers were seemingly accompanied by a cultural shift: Even consumers who continued to purchase expensive organic vegetables were adding cans of Spam to their pantries. The meat, once relegated as a quirk of Hawaiian or Asian cuisine, started appearing on haute restaurant menus as a nod to that highbrow/lowbrow mash-up, or perhaps to the chef’s feelings of nostalgia for the ingredient. (A quick search of Spam recipes from the ’60s reveals dishes like Spam upside-down pie; and Spam sandwiches topped with baked beans.)
Today, its sometimes-kitsch factor is a point of pride, for both Hormel and Spam fans: You can show your affection for Spam with everything from Hormel-authorized T-shirts (reading “I think, therefore I Spam”) to crocheted, cat-shaped Spam musubi (available for purchase, naturally, on Etsy). Here’s a look back at how Spam first got canned, why it’s currently beloved in Hawaii and South Korea, and why Spam remains on many restaurant menus today.