The Beach Issue

Wham, Bam, Thank You Spam

As far as meat in a can goes, you would be hard pressed to find something more famous and instantly recognizable than Spam.

Here on the mainland, the mysteriously named meat is sometimes considered either a guilty pleasure or an emergency ration. But in Hawaii? You might not believe this, but Spam is a beloved staple there, treated with respect and often given the full gourmet treatment. The stuff is practically better than steak on the islands — more versatile and more fun. How that happened is a quirk of history: the result of the Second World War and the happy, unexpected marriage of two quite different cuisines.

Spam wasn’t made for war. It was created by Hormel Foods Corporation to find a better use for pork shoulders. Bacon, ham, loin — one animal produces all those things. But the shoulder? People just weren’t buying them, and a sort of culinary Manhattan Project was convened. Hormel knew canned meats. Their first stab at it was in the mid-1920s, with — and this was its actual name — Hormel Flavor-Sealed Ham. This time, though, they would create the alpha and omega of aluminum-encased pig. The result? Spam. Spam? Spam.

Yeah, you’re probably wondering about that name. I mean, it’s better than “Flavor-Sealed Ham.” The guy who named Spam, Ken Daigneau, did so in a contest, and won $100 for his Shakespearean style etymology. Hormel always capitalizes the word in its entirety, and hints coyly that SPAM is an acronym.

“Pshh, everybody knows that!” you shout. “Spiced ham!”

Hormel isn’t saying. On the official Spam website, Hormel states: “One popular belief says it’s derived from the words ‘spiced ham.’ The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives.” Note the word “former”; there’s a chance not even the men and women who work today at Spam HQ know what it stands for. The famed blue and yellow label might one day be as impenetrable and unknowable as the Voynich manuscript, a 15th-century composition in an unrecognized writing system.

So about World War II: By the time our boys were jumping from planes into Bastogne and taking the fight to Germany, Hormel was already a wildly successful company (they also had Hormel chili on the shelves by then). It was natural that they would help in the war effort, and 65% of the company’s sales were to Uncle Sam, including Spam. How much Spam, you might be wondering? One hundred fifty million pounds of the stuff. The problem, which Spam solved, was how to get fresh meat to the hard-charging soldiers on the front lines. You couldn’t keep ground or chopped meat refrigerated across the entire European and Pacific theaters, after all, and the alternative was even less likely: Pigs won’t wear parachutes, and cows took one look at Iwo Jima and said nooo to swimming. Hormel knew what to do, though: Use a can — no fridge necessary.

Where soldiers, sailors and Marines went, Spam went. And that included the islands of the Pacific. Hawaiians, in particular, thought Spam was just the cat’s pajamas. A lot of moving parts had to align, but the upshot is that the U.S. territory (it wasn’t a state yet) was filled to the brim with service members; those service members had enough Spam to build an island of their own; and that Spam filtered into the civilian populace. Moreover, and more grimly, the Hawaiian fishing industry suffered severely during the war, as Japanese residents on the island (who made up much of the trade), were prohibited from working. This shortfall in protein needed to be supplemented somehow. Enter Spam. By the time the war was over, the Hormel sensation had become deeply entrenched in Hawaiian cuisine.

Today, Hawaii is by far the biggest consumer of Spam in the United States, and its second-largest consumer overall (behind Guam). Every year, they eat six million cans of the stuff. In part, it’s practicality. Spam is shelf-stable; it’s happy to live for a very long time in the pantry. It is also a very cost-effective meat on an island chain that imports 90% of its food. Not that Spam is seen there as an “inferior” product — just the opposite! Prince and pauper alike in Hawaii enjoy Spam because the locals have mastered how to best prepare it.

Consider the Spam specialty musubi. It is rice topped with grilled Spam and wrapped in nori. (In other words, Spam sushi.) It is an enormously popular grab-and-go meal, and there are innumerable variations on it, including a version that uses fried rice, and one that takes teriyaki-flavored Spam and breads it lightly. There is also the Hawaiian Spam sandwich: browned Spam topped with American cheese and pineapple, served on a hamburger bun. And Spam gau gee, which is mashed Spam mixed with chopped parsley and chestnuts, folded into wonton wrappers, and deep fried. The McDonald’s breakfast menu in Hawaii even features Spam.

So passionate is the Hawaiian treatment of Spam that it is beginning to change perceptions even in the continental United States. Already, sales tend to surge during hard times (Spam is like that reliable friend you can always turn to). During the 2008 recession, Hormel reached maximum capacity in its plants in order to meet demand and, today, Spam has reached record sales during the shelter-in-place order due to COVID-19. But in good times, too, Spam is proving to be on fire with shoppers. Rouses supermarkets now sell musubi during it’s August Hawaiian days, and the Internet abounds with Spam recipes that border on the transcendent. Breaded Spam steaks? Spam quesadillas? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you: Spamaroni and cheese!

The simple truth is that Spam is a fun, distinctly American food of surprising versatility. The ease with which it fuses to foreign styles of cuisine, the fact that it has won wars, and the way in which it has been there, in good times and bad, make Spam the story of America, in miniature. Not bad for a “Hail Mary” attempt at finding a use for the humble pork shoulder, and one more win for the mighty pig.