Spam survived Pearl Harbour, The Korean War and the dorks of Monty Python. Now it wants to be taken seriously.
On the island of Oahu, one can enter a McDonald’s and order something called a ‘Spam McGriddles’, which is your regular McMuffin, but with notorious canned meat in place of our more sensible fare.
The Hawaiian kink for Spam is a particularly weighty, salty and sweaty tome as the state famously celebrates the luncheon meat once a year, as the last week of April sees the annual Spam Jam in Waikiki. Further to that point, the spam galaxy is a well settled one, as shoppers can readily purchase insane variations of the instantly recognisable (and barely digestible) foodstuff.
If we’re looking to blame people, the finger should point at Imperial Japan, as their bombing of Pearl Harbour brought the meat to the island via the US Army. Spam, as it turns out, is a lazy acronym for “Special Army Meat”. It was popular by the military types, as it didn’t require refrigeration, which allowed the regular GI from Nowhere, Kansas to spend their time asking the populace if they’d like to see their special army meat. Nevertheless, time makes fools of us all, as Spam is now an uber-popular cooking ingredient in restaurants you can’t afford.
In conversation with TIME, chef Sohui Kim explained the lasting Spam stigma, before giving into the salty devil, stating that “she had a “rocky” relationship with the ingredient and avoided it throughout her youth. She didn’t enjoy the flavour and saw the food as something that belonged to hard times. She recalls that she would always poke the Spam strips out of kimbap, a Korean rice roll her mom made. But as Kim grew older, she started embracing more different types of food and her palate turned around. “It’s all about your identity, your national identity, your personal identity, your family identity, and it sort of fuses,” she says. “And somehow Spam is there.”
In the same article, Robert Ku, a professor of Asian American Studies at the State University of New York, says that “the stigma about Spam as a “poor man’s meal” still exists in the United States, and “the only time you will see Spam in an American restaurant is if the restaurant is Filipino or Korean or something of that ilk.” However, he says that Asian American chefs are contributing to elevating Spam into an interesting culinary ingredient. “There is something quirky yet meaningful to these Asian Americans, who by consuming Spam are really embracing their histories and experience and the legacy as Asian Americans.””
Spam has a particularly grim history tied to warfare, as it arrived in Britain after Europe was destroyed in WW2, with the Americans (who actually owned half of the world’s manufacturing in 1946) sending over the cheap meat, probably as an overdue jab for all that colonisation. It arrived in Korea via the Korean War in the 1950s when the starving, war-battered locals discovered the foodstuff in the refuse of the US military bases that dotted the peninsula. Sadly, it was also prevalent when the US war machine remained in the region. It wasn’t strictly part of the GI’s diet, but it came with all the retail products arrive with the troops, often subverting the national experience long after the fighting has halted.
But that’s not Spam’s fault. It’s getting out of your pop’s pantry, and it is seeing the world, most notably in New York, with the Sushi Ko restaurant including spam fried rice on a $135 tasting menu. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
As long as it stays away from my lunch.