SPAMming the globeOct 30, 2023 12:34PM ● By Randal C. Hill
During World War II, American soldiers stationed overseas coined various definitions and nicknames for SPAM. Some called it “ham that didn’t pass its physical” while others sneered that it was “meatloaf without basic training.” Another bandied moniker was “special Army meat.”
SPAM’s parent company, Hormel Foods, estimates that 150 million pounds of the “mystery meat” were shipped overseas between 1941 and 1945. Despite complaints from the troops, who were sometimes served the ubiquitous product up to three times a day, historian Rachel Laudan justified its value during wartime:
“Having the sort of food that can survive in the tropical heat and be kept on a shelf for weeks and months was a huge boon,” she said.
SPAM was developed during the Great Depression when Jay Hormel, the company’s president, wanted to offer a budget-friendly product—cheap to make and cheap to buy—that could also rid the company of a surplus of stored pork shoulder.
In 1937, during a New Year’s Eve party, Hormel held a competition to name the new product. The winning name was spontaneously coined by Ken Daigneau, a New York radio actor. He received a prize of $100, a substantial amount considering the federal minimum wage at the time was 25 cents per hour.
SPAM continues to possess an element of mystery until you examine the label, revealing that it is, in fact, a combination of six ingredients: precooked pork, water, salt, potato, sugar and sodium nitrate. And like most processed meats, concerns have consistently arisen regarding its nutritional value because of its high content of fat, sodium and preservatives.
Following the war years, SPAM came to be seen as a convenient protein source and a tasty side dish around the world. By the 1960s, it had achieved widespread popularity in kitchens, with some people mixing it into their morning eggs and lunchtime sandwiches. It’s become a gourmet delicacy across Asia, and its biggest consumer (after America) is South Korea, where it is considered a luxury.
In the U.S., SPAM is particularly renowned in Hawaii, where approximately 1.5 million residents consume up to seven million cans annually. It is frequently enjoyed wrapped in seaweed and rice.
Unfortunately, SPAM now shares its name with annoying, unwanted ads and messages online. This has led to a joke about a computer operator who once warned, “If you get an email from me about canned meat, don’t open it. It’s SPAM.”