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.
It’s time for the rest of America to catch up with Hawaii. Though Hawaii’s love of Spam is the product of historical forces, there’s nothing outdated about appreciating the canned meat. In fact, Spam is a paragon of modern foodie ideals.
Consider that Spam contains not only ham (meat from the hind leg of the pig) but also pork shoulder. Today, pork shoulder is beloved by chefs and home cooks, but when Spam first hit the shelves, it was an underutilized and underappreciated cut. Hormel took that underrated meat and transformed it into a salty, meaty treat. “It’s a centuries-old idea,” says Hawaiian chef Alan Wong, who pays homage to Spam in his eponymous Honolulu restaurant. “You get all your trimmings and you turn them into sausage or a meatloaf or pâté or a terrine.” I’ve never seen a meat-eater turn up his nose at sausage or pâté—what rational basis is there, then, for eschewing their all-American cousin?
In fact, Spam is even simpler a concoction than most pâtés—it almost passes Michael Pollan’s five-ingredient test. (In In Defense of Food, Pollan argues that, to avoid eating too many processed foods, you shouldn’t buy anything containing more than five ingredients.) I’m not here to argue that Spam’s secretly been a health food all these years, but consider this: Hot dogs, which Americans eat with abandon, contain around 15 ingredients, many of them obscure chemicals. Spam contains six: pork (shoulder and ham), salt, water, sugar, sodium nitrite, and potato starch. (The last of these forms the goo on Spam that grosses some people out.) Sodium nitrite, which preserves meat and prevents bacterial growth, has a bad rap but its effects on health aren’t fully understood (and, in any event, we consume more nitrites from vegetables than from cured meats).
And thanks to Spam’s simplicity, it makes a wonderful ingredient in its own right. Chef Gordon Ramsay gave voice to a common misperception last year when he said he decided to become a chef to escape the “sliced, disgusting fucking Spam” his mother often served when he was a child. Well, if you serve “Spam straight out of a can” the way Ramsay says his mother did, you’re doing it wrong. Spam is fully cooked and technically comes ready to serve, but only the unimaginative stop there.
For creative cooks, a can of Spam is as versatile of a blank slate as a chicken breast. Wong incorporates house-made Spam, which he calls Spong (“when Spam meets Wong”) into several dishes at his upscale restaurant. He serves it in tortillas with classic taco garnishes, sandwiches it in baguettes for bành mì, and rolls it into Spam meatballs.
Hiura prefers to serve Spam like bacon: sliced extra thin, fried until brown and crispy, and eaten with eggs and rice. He also likes to prepare it with a teriyaki-like sauce and stir-fry it with vegetables, or eat it with saimin (Hawaii’s version of ramen). Hawaiian fast-food restaurants offer tasty Spam-based recipe ideas, too: You can buy it alongside Portuguese sausage, eggs, and rice in a McDonald’s breakfast platter and in a Croissan’wich at Burger King.
But if you’re looking for the most iconic Hawaiian Spam dish, look no further than Spam musubi—basically, Spam rice balls. “It has taken over as the favorite way to eat Spam,” says Ann Kondo Corum, whose Hawaii’s Spam Cookbook and its sequel are local best-sellers. She dedicated an entire section to Spam musubi varieties in the second book. The essential formulation consists of a block of white rice (molded in either a special musubi mold or the bottom of an empty Spam can), topped with a slice of fried and seasoned Spam, all wrapped in a strip of dried nori (seaweed).
In other words, Spam musubi looks a lot like sushi—and that comparison may be instructive. Just a few short decades ago, most Americans wouldn’t have dreamt of eating raw fish. Today, sushi is ubiquitous. It’s amazing how delicious the results can be when you open your mind.