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In Defense of SPAM (Part 1) 

A brief history of Hormel's spiced ham loaf

Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam!

Lovely spam! Wonderful spam!

Spam spa-a-a-a-a-am spam spa-a-a-a-a-am spam.

Lovely spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam!

Spam spam spam spam!

            "Spam Song" - from the Monty Python Spam sketch


In 1986 I was given a menu from Mr. Whitekeys' Fly By Nite Club, a memento from someone who'd been there. It was pretty funky, even from a rural Alaskan bar. But it was the first all-SPAM menu I'd seen aside from in the Monty Python sketch.

Before W. Keys took over the Fly By Nite, it was a working-class place with upper-class pretensions. The original owners served a vast selection of esoteric beers and French Champagne to a bunch of rednecks who couldn't care less. Overestimating the connoisseurship of their clientele, they went broke.

"Mr. Whitekeys" was the honky-tonk piano player at the bar when the owners fled and the unpaid staff deserted; he had to stay because he owned the piano. I'm not sure of the details from this point, but with no kitchen, he was somehow immune from Health Department rules. That meant nothing could be truly "cooked" on the premises, only toasted or microwaved. Hence the menu: SPAM plus whatever was handy, in the fridge, or available by airplane once a month. Amazingly, he made it work.

Mr. W did it by "branding" the club. In the long-standing tradition of Alaskans, he was an eccentric loner. Not only did he keep the good beer and Champagne, he even enforced a "Budweiser Tax" -- placards on all the tables stated, "We have gone to great trouble to bring you the finest in handcrafted micro-brews. Yet some of you nitwits insist on giving in to corporate advertising and ordering Budweiser. Well, that's fine with us, but you're going to have to pay a tax."

It wasn't much, just 50 cents per bottle, but the club became a symbol of maverick pride and eventually an "alternative" tourist attraction. And part of that attraction was SPAM.

For many, The Forbidden Food.

SPAM is part of Alaskan legend. The great Eskimo sculptor Joe Senungetuk tells of winter walrus and seal hunting trips with his father and uncles in a traditional walrus skin boat. The only food they took out on the icy Bering Strait was SPAM and pilot bread. They took SPAM because it doesn't freeze. Senungetuk claims he once applied for a state arts grant to put several hundred small sculptures on trees beside remote fishing streams throughout Alaska. Each would be a red metal box with a glass door and a little brass hammer on a chain. Inside the box would be a can of SPAM.

There's legend, and then there is history. Jay Hormel was the scion of a meatpacking family. During service in the WWI Quartermaster Corps, he made the sensible suggestion that the Army could cut shipping costs by boning meat before shipping it overseas. This pragmatism was to serve him well when he took over the family business: Their best-selling product was a small canned boned ham (''Hormel Flavor-Sealed Ham''), the first successful marketing of canned meat.

The clever touch was making the product shaped like a little ham then fitting it into a ham-shaped tin! It was a hit in 1926, and Hormel became the first of the great national meat producers. Jay was a progressive industrialist, who also introduced incentive pay, profit sharing and pension plans to the company.

Shaping for the canned-ham process, however, left a lot of meat as "trim." There was nothing inferior about it, so Hormel's staff chopped and blended it with potato flour and a little sugar, then steamed it into a compressed loaf, which they called "Spiced Ham Loaf." This was the first appearance of what came to be called "luncheon meat," a genre that was soon copied by competitors. Needing a more distinctive name, in 1937 the company chose SPAM ("SPiced hAM"). By the late-1930s, full-page color ads were routinely appearing in national magazines.

Contrary to one common myth, it was not invented for the War -- it was already highly popular. Although Hormel sold 65 percent of its SPAM production to the government, not much of it reached the battlefields. SPAM's popularity led the Army Quartermasters Corps to let out dozens of contracts for "potted meat," which was shipped to the front lines in industrial-size tins. The greasy, mottled-pink "mystery meat" that GIs came to despise was not the real thing. Their black humor -- "Ham that didn't pass its physical" and "meatloaf without basic training" -- was about imitations that would become, in the post-War years, off-brands like "Treet."

So what became of the SPAM delivered to Uncle Sam? Few GIs ever tasted it. Considered a national delicacy, much of it was shipped -- always in the same colorful 12-ounce cans -- as part of "Lend-Lease" (the support program under which the U.S. supplied Britain, the Soviet Union, China, France, and other Allied nations between 1941 and 1945). Inevitably, it became a cultural artifact of the U.S., along with Coke.

SPAM is a part of multiple cultures these days, and there are interesting ways Japanese and Hawaiian cuisines have adopted it, among many others. But I'm here to defend it as food we should make use of ourselves. 

And I can't do that without coming clean about the nutritional aspect of SPAM. Just how awful is it? Is it really a good choice for poor people?

Stay tuned for Part 2 with detailed nutrition facts -- and recipes.

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Joseph Byrd

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