No, we’re not talking about automated, unsolicited emails trying to sell you fat-burning pills or hair-loss recovery foam. The original Spam is a brand of precooked canned meat product made by the Hormel Foods Corporation. Today, there are 15 varieties of Spam sold in 41 countries and trademarked in over 100. It has transcended social classes and become an integral part of culinary cultures worldwide. So how did this canned luncheon meat product become a worldwide phenomenon? It’s due in large part to American GIs and WWII.
Introduced by Hormel in 1937, Spam aimed to increase the sale of pork shoulder, an unpopular cut of meat. Its name is the result of a contest won by Ken Daigneau, the brother of a Hormel executive. Hormel claims that the true meaning of the Spam name “is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Food executives,” however it is commonly accepted that it’s an abbreviation of spiced ham.
During WWII, delivering fresh meat to frontline troops was an extremely difficult task. Spam offered the military a canned solution that didn’t require refrigeration and possessed an extremely long shelf life. As Spam became an integral part of the GI diet, troops gave the meat a variety of nicknames like “ham that didn’t pass its physical,” “meatloaf without basic training,” and “Special Army Meat.” The grease from the luncheon meat was used to lubricate weapons and waterproof boots, and the empty cans could be filled with rocks and strung from wire perimeters as intruder alarms. By the end of the war, the military had purchased over 150 million pounds of Spam. For reference, a can of Spam today weighs 12 ounces.
Troops across all theaters of the war brought Spam with them as a convenient and preserved meat ration. As a result of the war and the following occupations, Spam was introduced to European and Asian countries where it was quickly assimilated into local diets.
In the UK, Spam’s popularity grew out of necessity as the result of rationing. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remembered Spam as “a wartime delicacy”. The canned luncheon meat has been adopted into various British recipes like Spam Yorkshire Breakfast, Spamish Omelette, Spam Hash and Spam Fritters.
Spam was also included as a part of Allied aid to the post-war Soviet Union. Strict food rations made meat even more scarce there than in Britain. “Without Spam we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army,” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev declared in his memoir.
East Asian countries also adopted Spam as a result of rationing and the scarcity of meat. In Hong Kong, the canned meat was incorporated into local dishes like macaroni with fried egg, ramen and chicken soup. Spam was ingrained so deeply in Okinawan culture that it is used in traditional onigiri (rice balls or triangles usually wrapped in seaweed) and is used in the traditional dish chanpurū. In Korea, Spam’s popularity rose out of the Korean War. As fish became scarce, Spam was used as a replacement in kimbap (rice and vegetable seaweed rolls). The cans of luncheon meat were also used by U.S. troops to trade for goods, services and even information around their bases. Today, Korea is second only by the United States in Spam production and consumption.
In Southeast Asia, Spam is most popular in the Philippines. Following WWII, Spam became a cultural symbol on the islands. It is most commonly eaten in Spamsilog, a twist on a traditional Filipino breakfast composed of rice (usually garlic fried rice), a sunny-side up egg, and a meat dish. Though Spam is commonly sliced and fried, it is also used in sandwiches, burgers and spaghetti. In the Philippines, Spam transcends social class and is extremely popular across all walks of life. There are at least 10 varieties of Spam sold in the Philippines that mimic the flavors of traditional meats. It’s estimated that 1.25 million kilos of Spam is sold annually in the Philippines. After Tropical Storm Ketsana in 2009, Hormel Foods donated over 30,000 pounds of Spam to the Philippine Red Cross.
In the United States, Spam is especially popular in Hawaii whose residents have the highest per capita consumption in the country. Spam is used most heavily in Spam musubi where a slice is placed on top of rice and wrapped in a band of nori seaweed. The Hawaiian market also features exclusive Spam variants like Honey Spam, Spam with Bacon, and Hot and Spicy Spam. Spam is even served in local McDonald’s and Burger King chains. Every spring, Oahu hosts an annual Spam festival called Waikiki Spam Jam where local chefs and restaurants compete to make new spam-themed dishes which are then sold at the street fair.
Although it is seen by some as a food of poverty or hard times due to its affordability and long shelf life, Spam’s popularity around the world is undeniable. Thanks in large part to the GIs that brought it with them, Spam was able to fill food gaps in countries ravaged by war and evolve into a dietary staple and cultural icon.