Spam

No, we don't have a tin of Pumpkin Spice Spam in the office. You can read why.

The end of the world is upon us.

Yes, you read that right. However it plays out—a giant asteroid, the robot apocalypse, that rapture thing, the Cubs winning a World Series—signs of earth’s impending demise are everywhere. 

Oh, you want evidence? Try Pumpkin Spice Spam.

OK, perhaps we’re being a bit melodramatic here. After all, it can be argued that civilization survived—even thrived—the introduction of canned pork product. And we made it through Teriyaki Spam, Hickory Smoke-flavored Spam and Hot & Spicy Spam pretty much unscathed.

But let’s consider the other side of the equation and just why that may have pushed us to the tipping point. It started innocently enough with pumpkin spice latte. Now, however, you can find pumpkin spice kale chips, Kahlúa, almonds, salsa, Buffalo wings, Greek yogurt, kombucha, coconut milk, cereal, Oreos, butter—even dog treats and protein powder.

“Wow, they really will add pumpkin pie spice to anything,” says a shocked Susan Mosqueda of The Butter House in Seaside upon hearing the news. “I thought they’d done everything.”

So when Pumpkin Spice Spam hits the virtual shelves—it will only be available online—later this month, there will likely be nothing left to add a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and allspice to. 

And if that’s not troubling enough, initial reviews of the product are almost positive. When Dan Myers at The Daily Meal convened at tasting panel, one of his human guinea pigs reported “It wasn’t as bad as I expected. It definitely seems like it would work best when paired with other elements, like in a scramble or breakfast sandwich, though.” And Adam Campbell-Schmitt at Food & Wine said the flavored Spam “certainly seems to err on the side of a breakfast food, and could easily be slathered in maple syrup as you might with breakfast sausage.”

“Hopefully I can try it,” says Maria Soto at Aloha Hawaiian BBQ in Salinas. “Why not? We have to be open to different things.”

Well, “have to” is relative. When it was suggested that the Weekly convene a tasting panel in our plush velour-cushioned newsroom, reporter Mary Duan threatened to force-feed Spam—can and all—to anyone who took part, and not through the usual end of the body.

But likely Soto is right. The typical pumpkin pie spices are also found in many ham recipes. Who hasn’t studded a hunk of holiday ham with cloves or dressed it with brown sugar and nutmeg? And maybe Spam deserves a better reputation overall.

Myers suggests we compare the ingredients of Spam—pork, salt (lots of salt), water, sugar, potato starch (to absorb the ugly gelatin that would develop) and nitrites (to make it look like ham)—against a popular hot dog brand.

“Mechanically separated chicken, potassium lactate, sodium diacetate and sodium erythorbate,” he wrote, listing some of the items that make up Ball Park Franks. “Spam looks downright natural.”

Hormel—the company responsible for all this fuss—sells 90 million tins of the stuff each year, and that just in the United States. Spam is also on shelves in 44 countries. The Smithsonian keeps a can to help preserve the story of American culture. Carolyn Wyman published a book on the matter, Spam: A Biography. And it is a staple in Hawaii (think Spam musubi, along with other favorites), as well as at local Hawaiian restaurants.

“It’s very popular,” Aloha Hawaiian BBQ’s Soto reports. “People order it because they really love Spam.”

Wait—this is also the stuff dismissed on the mainland as Scientifically Processed Animal Matter (to explain the product’s name), ridiculed in song by Monty Python’s Flying Circus and so under-appreciated that early internet pioneers labeled unwanted messages as “spam.”

People outside of the islands and South Korea actually enjoy slippery hunks of processed meat?

“We go through a lot of it,” agrees Mosqueda at The Butter House. “It’s probably one of our top two sellers.”

You can get Spam and eggs, a side order of Spam and it is an option on the restaurant’s breakfast fried rice. When the server asks “Black Forest ham or Spam,” more often than not guests go for the latter.

“I know,” Mosqueda says, anticipating my incredulous gasp.

Of course, this may be part of the doomsday scenario. When the economy bombed back in the late 2000s, demand for Spam shot up 10 percent, and there’s word of another recession on the way. Then again, Spam has been thrust into the role of saving the world before—or at least parts thereof.

Spam first arrived on the market in 1937 during the Great Depression, inspired by common lunchmeat found at delis and butcher shops. But it became ubiquitous in World War II.

Maybe the war couldn’t have happened without Spam. At the very least, its outcome may have been different. Nikita Khrushchev—the Soviet Union's Premier known for banging his shoe on the podium during a United Nations assembly—lauded Spam’s contribution to victory on the Eastern Front in his riveting memoir Khrushchev Remembers. “Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army,” he wrote. “We had lost our most fertile lands.”

War-torn parts of the world depended upon Spam and other canned meats to recover. Hawaii’s affinity for the processed meat has more to do with U.S. policy than wartime shortages, at least according to Rachel Laudan’s The Food of Paradise: Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage. Laudan explains that the number of island residents with Japanese heritage was so large, they could not easily be rounded up and carted off to “internment” camps without serious damage to the local economy. With racist urges foiled, authorities decided to clamp down on deep sea fishing instead. 

This accomplished two things. First, it put Japanese fishermen out of work, effectively detaining them. And it left Hawaii as an island without access to the usual haul of seafood.

Spam—yes, and other tinned protein—thus became a staple.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to commend Spam’s role in ultimate victory, writing to a Hormel executive that “I ate my share of Spam along with millions of other soldiers. I’ll even confess to a few unkind remarks about it—uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as former Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it.”

There’s a scene in the movie Battleground where men of the embattled 101st Airborne, surrounded at Bastogne and desperately short of everything, received a supply drop. Troopers rush around, happily cracking open crates of ammo and food...until two men find large tins marked “Spam.”

They turn and walk away, leaving the meat product behind.

Hormel delivered something like 100 million pounds of processed meat to troops during World War Two, at least according to their calculations. And that’s a big part of the reason Spam’s reputation suffered. Well, that and public access to unreconstructed pork after the war. But anyway…

Not that other rations fared much better. Mess hall creamed chipped beef on toast earned the nickname “shit on a shingle” or SOS, for short. Marines referred to powdered lemonade as “battery acid.” Service members honored instant coffee with tags such as “mud.” But the terms used to describe Spam were much less pleasant, often because it was slapped on their plates two or three times a day.

In a 1945 interview with The New Yorker, Jay Hormel revealed that letters from GIs heaping abuse on him, the company and the product filled what he called a “Scurrilous File.” (One wonders what he would have dealt with had social media been a thing.)

“If they think Spam is terrible they ought to have eaten the bully beef we had in the last war,” Hormel told the magazine.

But the millions of men and women who returned home at the end of the war wanted nothing more to do with Spam, even if it was more palatable than the stuff pawned off on soldiers from earlier conflicts (the Civil War favorite of brick-dry hardtack crackers sopped in hot grease, for example—which even pumpkin spice couldn’t improve).

Oh, yeah. We were talking about Pumpkin Spice Spam. And the end of the world as we know it.

Regular Spam is a survivor. And it has enough fans that some restaurants are beginning to bring it to menus (a recent Baltimore Sun article explored the rising popularity of “can to table” dining).

But the newest flavored version?

“I’d have to see how it tastes before putting it on a menu,” Mosqueda says with some hesitation. “We might find a place for it.”

So we’ll settle on that definite maybe as an answer to this week’s Burning Question. As for the world, it may be safe...unless Hormel comes out with pasture-raised artisanal Spam.

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(1) comment

Julian Cook

"Pumpkin Spice needs to drown in a pool of its own orange blood" ...... (R.I.P.) Anthony Bourdain.


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