(This essay is adapted from Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA, published in 2014 by the University of Hawai‘i Press.
Adapted by and used with the permission of the author.)
I love SPAM. No, not unwanted emails but the canned meat product marketed by Hormel Foods. Kimchi fried rice, budae jjigae, gimbap, and instant ramen—these and many other SPAM-laden dishes have been a regular part of my diet since childhood. Rachel Laudan, author of Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage, believes that to take on SPAM as a matter of discussion “is to pick at the ethnic seams of Hawaii.” She observes that all locals “understandably regard SPAM as thrifty and tasty, a food of childhood, a food of family meals and picnics at the beach, a food of convenience.”
In a blog titled “The End of Spam Shame” that appeared on the website of Hyphen, an Asian American magazine, Sylvie Kim recalls that her childhood was “chock-full of nitrates, sodium, and an amalgam of four-legged animals chopped and cured into uniform cuts of salty goodness that was inexpensive, easy to heat, and lasted for damn near forever—key to a family of five with immigrant parents who were struggling financially.” By salty goodness, she means hot dogs, Vienna sausages, and, above of all, SPAM. Kim writes that her yen for the canned meat was inherited from her mother, who grew up in impoverished postwar Korea. She, on the other hand, grew up among mostly whites in the American Midwest, where she experienced a keen sense of shame over her family’s reliance on a food product that was “synonymous with poverty or ‘trashiness’ in American pop culture.” It was not until she moved to San Francisco, where she witnessed scores of Asian Americans shamelessly devouring SPAM musubi, that Kim was able to “cast off the onerous chains of Spam shame.”
In her article “Spam I Am,” another Korean American, Sunyoung Lee, asserts that in the popular imagination, “this neatly tinned pink gelatinous substance straddles a gamut of associations from trashiness to status to kitsch.” But, as someone who grew up eating the stuff, there is a personal consideration for her as well: “Spam tastes good.” I could not agree with both Kim and Lee more. I also grew up with the stuff, and, despite the contradictory array of reputations that precedes it, I also find it delicious. Thus, I too am SPAM—and in more ways than one.
I trace my roots to Korea, where I was born, and Hawai‘i, where I spent my formative years. Not so coincidentally, these two places top the list of the world’s biggest consumers of SPAM. According to one estimate, while Guam leads in terms of per capita, South Korea is the largest bulk consumer. That Hawai‘i ranks first among US states is well chronicled. Hawai‘i accounts for roughly eight percent of all domestic sales by a population that represents less than half of one percent of the total US population.
No matter how you slice it, that’s is a whole lot of … what exactly? SPAM is one of America’s great dubious foods, one that is widely regarded as vulgar, tacky, and farcical. To its detractors, SPAM is less a comestible than a series of bothersome questions: What is it? Is it edible? Is it a joke? SPAM is the quintessential “mystery meat,” not found at your local butchers but in the netherworld of the industrial food complex.
Many of my friends and colleagues find SPAM laughable. To be more precise, most of my non-Korean, non-Filipino, and those-not-from-Hawai‘i peers find it laughable. Everyone knows of SPAM, but who has actually tasted it? Who admits to actually liking it? More importantly, what does it mean to consider SPAM an inalienable part of one’s sense of self? While it exists mainly as an object of snooty condescension and a symbol of culinary unsophistication to most Americans, the product is held in much higher regard elsewhere in the world—namely in the Asia-Pacific world.
As Ty Matejowsky, author of “SPAM and Fast-food ‘Glocalization’ in the Philippines,” points out, consumers in such disparate settings as Guam, South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan treasure SPAM so much that “Western criticisms of the product are rendered all but irrelevant.” In the Philippines, SPAM is considered such a delicacy that most people receive it as pasalubong [homecoming gift] from friends and relatives returning home from overseas, where Filipinos by the millions live and work. The popularity of SPAM is so widespread throughout the archipelago that it is enjoyed even in Mindanao, which is predominantly Muslim, although there, diners opt for Turkey SPAM over the traditional pork version. And in 2003, the first SPAMJAM Café, specializing in dishes that contain SPAM as an ingredient, opened in the Ayala shopping center in Manila. The café offered items such as SPAM burger, SPAM spaghetti, SPAM Caesar salad, and SPAM baked macaroni. “SPAM’s appeal transcends social class so that wealthy, middle-class and working-class Filipinos all regularly consume it,” writes Matejowsky, and he adds, “That SPAM is viewed more as a dietary staple of the affluent and moderately affluent than that of the poor says a lot about its negotiated meaning outside the West.”
In South Korea, sleekly packaged SPAM appears alongside fancy imported liquor and chocolates in upscale department stores. By one estimate, SPAM represents over 50 percent of South Korea’s entire canned food market. According to George H. Lewis, author of “From Minnesota Fat to Seoul Food: Spam in American and the Pacific Rim,” to many Pacific island cultures, such as those on the Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, and Tahiti, SPAM functions as a non-perishable form of meat currency “that could be stocked as wealth like money in the bank, saved up, or purchased and given as gifts.”
But how did it get this way? How is that SPAM, a punch line to a joke for most Americans, is a beloved comfort food in Hawai‘i and a status symbol in the Philippines and South Korea? For answers, we must reflect on the fact that, at its core, SPAM is a preserved food. Specifically, we must consider the role of food preservation—particularly the method of canning food—in the history of seafaring and the modern military.
The age of industrialization and dramatic rise of Europe’s population during and after the eighteenth century coincided with improved food preservation methods of various sorts, from drying and smoking of fish to pickling of fruits and vegetables to canning of meats. The epic sea voyages giving rise to Europe’s age of discovery provided the entrepreneurial incentive needed for radical improvements in food preservation methods. As early as mid-eighteenth century, the Dutch navy subsisted on beef preserved in fat and stored in ironed canisters. The Dutch also established a salmon canning industry using a similar method. The British Royal Navy had by this time adopted a “portable soup” made from the offal, shins, and hooves of cattle. Stored as a thick, glue-like cake prior to being dissolved with boiling water to make an insipid broth, the soup was detested by most seamen but considered essential by the higher ups. Captain James Cook thought so highly of the soup that he took it along on all his voyages and flogged the men who refused to eat it.
More so than any other European power, it was the French who revolutionized large-scale food preservation, and, in particular, the practice of thermal sterilization, which is the heating of foods in sealed, airtight containers, such as jars and cans. The individual credited for perfecting this technique is a French pastry chef named Nicolas Appert. In 1804, eager to profit from his new technique, Appert set up a factory that employed fifty workers. Industrial scale canning of food had now officially begun. The method of canning meat that Appert put into practice at his factory in Massy, France, is essentially identical to that employed some two centuries later at the SPAM plant in Austin, Minnesota, aka “Spamtown,” which churns out nearly 150,000 cans of SPAM during a single daytime shift. In both instances, chunks of meat are placed into hermetically sealed cans, which are then heated.
The French government in the meantime sought ways to improve the military diet. It did so with the understanding that, to quote the famous adage attributed to none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, “An army marches on its stomach.” Specifically, Napoleon sought food that was economical, transportable, tastier, and more nutritious than the dried, salted, and smoked products that the army had hitherto relied on. The canned food innovated by Appert turned out to be the answer. This form of provisions had several strategic advantages: It allowed rations to be prepared and stockpiled in advance, stored for long periods, and transported to combatants without the risk of spoiling. It also curtailed the difficulty of seasonal variations, allowing for military campaigns to be waged even in winter.
Of course, Napoleon’s army was neither the first nor last to recognize the importance of food in warfare. Food’s capacity as a weapon and strategic tool has been known since ancient, if not prehistoric, times. The food policies of ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese were as instrumental to their countless battlefield successes as any other single factor. In the fourth century AD the Roman military scholar Vegetius wrote, “Starvation destroys an army more often than does battle, and hunger is more savage than the sword.” And, on the authority of a medieval Chinese military handbook: “If you occupy your enemies’ storehouses and granaries and seize his accumulated resources in order to provision your army continuously, you will be victorious.”
Over the course of its history, the US military had also been keenly aware of the importance of a sound food policy. During the War of Independence, the American army drove live cattle and hogs to campsites in order to provide soldiers with fresh meat, an arduous practice that lasted until the Spanish-American War of 1898. This sort of reliance on fresh food had serious drawbacks, however: For every soldier killed in battle during the Spanish-American War, fourteen died of an illness link to either a lack or spoilage of food. This prompted the army to revise its food policies in 1901, and thus was established the different categories of military ration, such as garrison, field, and emergency—aka A, B, C, D, and K rations.
In 1935, perhaps in anticipation of the US involvement in World War II, a government directive mobilized all branches of food science to improve the quality of the existing combat ration. Specifically, the directive sought to stimulate production of an emergency ration that (a) would be usable under any climactic conditions, (b) would deliver the highest number of calories in the smallest package possible, and (c) would be palatable enough to eat every day. With the American entry into the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the efficacy of the American military’s scientifically formulated ration would be thoroughly tested. It would pass with flying colors.
Both the allies and enemies of the US were awestruck by the quality, quantity, and variety of food the American had at their disposal. The British soldiers, who took pride at “making do” with limited provisions during wars and other difficult times, saw the Americans as “overfed.” So did the Germans. Never in the history of mankind had an army been as abundantly supplied with food as the Americans. For example, in 1942, an average American civilian male consumed 125 pounds of meat. The average soldier consumed 360 pounds.
Military chow provided far more than the minimum calories and nutrients the soldiers required. Despite their incessant complaints about the awful and repetitive taste, the GIs thrived on it. Most World War II recruits had hailed from humble if not impoverished backgrounds and, like the US population at large during the Great Depression, was typically malnourished. For many soldiers, therefore, army grub was literally the best they ever had on a regular basis. For instance, it was not uncommon for men stationed at the Air Force base in Randolph Field, Texas, to gain ten to twenty pounds each month.
Accompanied by mobile field kitchens, the GIs ate remarkable well even near the field of battle. Instructed to provide their comrades with at least one hot meal each day, army cooks baked fresh bread daily on portable ovens and served it alongside hot soup and stew filled with meat. Ice cream machines were a standard issue—a godsend for those stationed in the sweltering South Pacific. And for those directly engaged in combat, there were the emergency rations, the bulk of which would not have been possible had it not been for Appert’s contribution to the Napoleonic Wars. Each element of the rations was in one way or another preserved, with canned meats and vegetables playing the starring role. For example, the K ration was packed in three separate boxes, each a complete meal containing canned meats and vegetables, beans and stews, hash, coffee tablets, concentrated bouillon, powdered lemon juice, biscuits, chocolate bar, and chewing gum.
As part of the nation’s austerity measures, the government established a strict rationing system among the civilian population, which at times prompted hoarding frenzies. A year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was common for entire sections of grocery stores shelves to remain bare. Citizens on the home front could no longer indiscriminately consume such commonplace items as gasoline, coal, tires, sugar, coffee, canned foods, and medicine. For the most part, Americans tolerated the shortage with stoic patriotism. What appeared to perturb the people most, however, was the rationing of fresh meat. In various parts of the country, the police were called to quell angry mobs at butcher shops and other outlets where meat was sold. It was during this period that the Hormel company, and its signature product SPAM, came to national prominence. Faced with a shortage of fresh meat, the civilian population turned to canned meats in droves. Sales of SPAM, which was first launched in 1937, doubled between 1939 and 1942.
And just as Appert’s personal canning factory contributed to France’s nineteenth-century war efforts, so did private American companies play a part in the US’s during World War II. It began when Uncle Sam decided to make SPAM a part of the military’s C ration. Soldiers consumed so much of it that they soon bellyached about the drudgery of SPAM. Nevertheless, as Matejowsky points out, SPAM has remained a part of the military’s ration in “every major US combat operation since World War II.”
SPAM also found international fame during this period. In addition to feeding US troops, SPAM also fed America’s World War II allies in both the Pacific and European theaters. One of the unique advantages of SPAM was its rectangular shape. It was more easily stackable and thus more space saving than cylindrical cans, and made the large-scale storage and transport of the product more efficient. The Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoir: “Without SPAM, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.” He also wrote that despite the many off-color jokes the soldiers made about the American product, “it tasted good.”
By 1944, Hormel exported some ninety percent of all its products overseas, including to Britain, where SPAM became a huge hit. Faced with austerity measures far more severe than the Americans’, the British took to SPAM fervently. It was included in sandwiches, fritters, and rarebits, and was baked clove-studded and glazed with brown sugar, mustard, and vinegar. Considered a luxury, SPAM was highly coveted during and for many years after the war. This, however, did not stop SPAM from eventually ending up a target of mockery, best fitted for British satirists like Monty Python.
As World War II drew to a close, SPAM found a home also in Asia and the Pacific, particularly in countries that played a major role in US military endeavors. Since 1898, when the American military first fought a significant battle in Asia against the Spanish in the Philippines, the Asia-Pacific region has served as the backdrop for the majority of major US combat operations. Following the heels of the Spanish-American War was the Philippine-American War fought on Filipino soil. When the US declared war against Japan after Pearl Harbor, the entirety of the Pacific Rim and almost every Pacific island turned into a single, enormous theater of war. During the Korean War, some 37,000 US soldiers died fighting in Korea, and an additional 58,000 perished in the jungles of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
In most cases, the end of US combat operations did not mean the exit of US military personnel from the region. Rather, it often meant prolonged military occupation or even permanent American presence with the establishment of bases and camps in such strategic locations as the Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, Korea, Guam, and Hawai‘i. The current culinary significance of SPAM to the cuisines of these places is thus directly linked to the modern history the US military. What started out as emergency rations for American GIs during the war eventually morphed into a symbol of American generosity and superiority to Asian and Pacific natives during the postwar years.
Lewis posits that the “successes of the Allied military effort in the Pacific theater during World War II gave an intense and up-close introduction to many Pacific cultures of things American.” This includes such items as beer, chocolate, chewing gum, and military rations, like SPAM, which “became valuable artifacts of the most recent occupying culture, and prized as such by the locals.” And despite feelings of ambivalence or resentment the natives might have toward the US military, SPAM remains a local favorite. And unlike in Britain, where the product fell out of favor among the people within a generation, SPAM has not lost any of its luster for many Asia Pacific peoples, including those who live in the US.
It is for these reasons that SPAM is not a joke to the devoted legions of Koreans, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, and Asian Americans, especially those of Korean, Filipino, or Japanese ancestry. SPAM is a part of who they are. It is no less integral to their identity than, say, Jamón serrano is to some Spaniards, Proscuitto di Parma to Italians, haggis to Scots, or their respective visage of the hot dog to New Yorkers and Chicagoans.
With every bite of SPAM, layers of overlapping histories, crisscrossing migrations, and elaborate cultural transformations are consumed. With it are consumed calamitous political turmoil, military conflicts, and other global upheavals that shaped much of the twentieth century. Those of us who love SPAM do so not despite but precisely because of what it is. That is to say, SPAM is not a substitute for something else shamefully consumed during moments of desperation but the real thing consumed in order to experience moments of gustatory pleasure. SPAM is not a metaphor—for, say, real meat. Rather, it is what it is. Ridiculous as it may sound, SPAM and I go together like Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie. And in this, I am not alone. Vast swaths of Asia, the Pacific, and Asian America sit alongside me at the table.
Kim, Sylvie. “The End of Spam Shame: On Class, Colonialism, and Canned Meat.” Hyphen (blog), June 3, 2011, http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2011/06/end-spam-shame-class-colonialism-and-canned-meat.
Laudan, Rachel. The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage. Honolulu: University of Hawi‘i Press, 1996.
Lee, Sunyoung. “Spam I Am.” MUAE 2 (1997): 78-83.
Levenstein, Harvey. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Lewis, George H. “From Minnesota Fat to Seoul Food: Spam in America and the Pacific Rim.” Journal of Popular Culture 34.2 (Fall 2000): 83-105.
Matejowsky, Ty. “SPAM and Fast-food ‘Glocalization’ in the Philippines,” Food, Culture, Society 10.1 (2007): 23-41.