Today we celebrate a notable birthday, not of a person, but of a product – SPAM.
The canned cooked meat, a blend of pork and ham, was introduced on July 5th, 1937 by American company Hormel Foods Corporation, based in Austin, Minnesota. Its widespread consumption by American Forces during the Second World War saw it introduced to many more nations and by 2003 SPAM was sold in 41 countries on six continents and trademarked in more than 100 countries.
There are various theories as to what ‘SPAM’ actually stands for, with possibilities including ‘spiced ham’, ‘specially processed American meat’ or ‘shoulders of pork and ham’. A competition to name the new product was held prior to its 1937 launch, with the $100 prize won by Ken Daigneau, the brother of a Hormel company executive. Yet despite all the theories, to this day Hormel claims the true meaning of the name is known only to a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives.
The basic ingredients of a can of SPAM are pork with ham meat added, salt, water, modified potato starch to bind it together, sugar and sodium nitrate as a preservative. Natural gelatin forms in the cans during cooking on the production lines. In later years various flavoured options have been introduced, including SPAM with black pepper, garlic, bacon and even cheese, but classic SPAM remains the best seller.
Without a doubt it was the Second World War which popularised SPAM. The problem of delivering fresh meat to soldiers at the front made it an instant hit with the US Army, which bought canned SPAM by the ton. It soon became a staple of the American soldier’s diet and was give various nicknames by the GIs, including “ham that didn’t pass its physical”, “meatloaf without basic training” and “mystery meat”.
By the end of the war, more than 75,000 tons of SPAM had been purchased by the US military. In places occupied by American troops, especially the Pacific islands, cans of SPAM were given out to the local populations and quickly became absorbed into their diet. America also supplied SPAM to its beleaguered wartime ally Russia, whose post-war leader Nikita Kruschev later admitted “without SPAM we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army”.
It was similar story here in the UK, where strict rationing was in force throughout the war, but a deal with America – the ‘Lend-Lease Act’ – saw Britain supplied with basic food items as well as armaments and other supplies essential to the war effort. It meant British people got their first taste of SPAM, which has remained a part of the national diet ever since.
After the war, British company Newforge Foods was licensed to produce SPAM at it factory in Liverpool, where it stayed until 1998 when production switched to the Danish Crown Group, owners of the Tulip Food Company. During rationing, which continued long after the war ended, SPAM was often the only meat readily available, and even after rationing ended it was a cheap and nutritious option for hard-pressed families.
Inventive cooks devised a whole host of SPAM-based recipes, such as ‘Spam Hash’, ‘Spam stew’ and ‘Spamish omelette’. Slices of SPAM could also be fried and substituted for bacon in an English breakfast, or battered and deep-fried to make Spam fritter, still a chip shop favourite in many parts of the UK. SPAM recipe books are available to buy, with more recipes on the official UK SPAM website.
Because it was cheap, SPAM also gained a reputation as a ‘poverty food’. The Scots, known for their dry wit, coined the term “Spam Valley” for certain post-war housing developments whose residents liked to appear better off, but in reality were living on the breadline. By the 1970s SPAM was so widely used in the UK that it inspired an iconic sketch on the satirical TV show “Monty python’s Flying Circus”. It was set in a café which only served dishes containing SPAM, including “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam”. It even had a memorable song extolling SPAM.
The name ‘spam’ has also been given to any type of unsolicited email, supposedly because it is unwanted, not very nice, absolutely everywhere and inescapable – qualities ascribed to the original SPAM by those who deride it. Fans of the classic tinned meat would strongly disagree, and since an incredible eight billion cans have been sold, there are still clearly plenty of them.
There is even a Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, where volunteer guides called ‘Spambassadors’ escort visitors around the 14,000 sq.ft venue and offer them small cubes of SPAM on cocktail sticks, known as ‘Spamples’.