No one likes spam, but a lot of people love Spam. In 2021, Spam sales reached a record high for the seventh year in a row, making Spam manufacturer Hormel a decent $3.5 billion in sales, according to BBC News. It would only be natural for an American brand to have most of its cans consumed within the United States, and yet it’s not the top consumer of spam. That title goes to the tiny territory of Guam, an island on the Pacific Ocean that plays host to several U.S. military bases.
People in Guam eat an average of 16 cans of Spam per person each year, making its inhabitants the uncontested #1 fans of Hormel’s meat product. Guam isn’t alone in this. Other countries that have been host to American military bases have also made Spam part of their national palettes. Today, it’s consumed in countries like Hawaii, South Korea, and the Philippines. But to understand the reason why Spam became an globally recognized brand and what that has to do with the U.S. military, we have to step back and start with where Spam itself started.
The Humble Origins of Spam
Some people are suspicious of Spam’s meat-like but not exactly meat texture and flavor. Hormel Foods’ website acknowledges that their product has a “bit of a reputation as a mystery meat”, but explains it’s really just pork, ham meat, salt, water, potato starch, and sodium nitrite, a preservative. Spam’s long shelf-life and simple flavors come became the cornerstones of its fame later on, but we’ll get to that later.
According to Time, Spam was initially conceived to make then-undesirable pork shoulder cuts into something profitable during the Great Depression. It’s a smart concept, there’s just one problem: It needed a name. Hormel executives decided to hold a naming contest with a reward of $100 to whoever could come up with the most memorable name for a relatively one-note product. Ken Digneau stepped up to plate and named it Spam, a portmanteau for “spiced ham”.
And so it was done. Spam first hit shelves in July 5, 1937 and was advertised with slogans like “Cold or hot, Spam hits the spot!“, something that was coldly received by the housewives Spam was advertised to. Simply put, they just didn’t trust a meat product that not only didn’t look like any recognizable meat anymore but also didn’t need to be refrigerated. Back in the day, Spam sounded like a health risk.
And then World War 2 came.
American Soldiers Took Spam on a World Tour of Asia Pacific Back in World War 2
Spam’s ability to survive without refrigeration catapulted Spam into the diets of American troops who were being sent to Asia Pacific during World War 2. The cans were durable and easy to pack with minimal wasted space and contained much needed protein that would go a long way in giving American troops the calories they needed. They weren’t happy about it, though, and were more than vocal about sending Hormel hate mail about Spam. You could say GIs were spamming them with Spam complaints.
The U.S. did more than send their troops away with Spam, they were also sending their allies Spam to help with wartime rations. The Lend-Lease Agreement between the U.S. and the U.K. had the British receiving thousands of cans of Spam together with items like powdered eggs and margarine.
The soldiers? They were settling into battlefields and bases all around the world with cans of Spam they weren’t exactly fond of. It didn’t take long for Spam to start making its way out of U.S. bases in countries like the Philippines where products like Spam, cornflakes, and pancake mix were sold at post exchange retail stores located on bases. It’s relative rarity made Spam, which the soldiers still weren’t big fans of, a luxury item and status symbol among locals.
The same happened in South Korea where meat was scarce during the war, making the humble Spam the Birkin bag of canned goods. Food items like Spam and sausages were smuggled out of military bases and enjoyed by locals. The introduction of Spam to Okinawa was a little rougher on locals. Pre-war Okinawa was not able to sustain its own population with local food production so when the American military came and dispossessed locals of agricultural land to build military bases, most Okinawans had to work on bases in exchange for American food or cash that they mostly spent on American food items. Either way, Spam emerged as king.
Meanwhile in Hawaii, Spam grew to become a disaster food. It’s durability made it a must-have prep item for locals who are used to the storms brought in by the monsoon season.
How Spam Influences Local Cuisine Throughout the Pacific
Japanese immigration to Hawaii in the 19th century and American military presence created the right conditions for one of the world’s most recognizable snacks to be invented: Spam musubi.
Spam musubi is a combination of Spam, rice, and seaweed that looks like an oversized piece of sushi. Today, Hawaii consumes the most Spam out of all American states.
The Chamorro people of Guam took their cans of Spam and came up with Spam Kelaguen, a salad-like Spam dish made of fried strips of Spam and grated coconut. The dish is tossed with lemon juice, salt, green onions, and hot pepper. There’s also Spam Goulash which mixes Spam, corn, green beans, mushrooms, and tomato sauce into one hearty dish.
In the Philippines, Spam is a breakfast food. While Spam fried rice isn’t unheard of, a more popular way to serve Spam is in Spamsilog. The ‘silog’ dishes of the Philippines are breakfast meal combos consisting of sinangag (fried rice) and itlog (fried egg) together with a third item that determines the first half of the word. In Spamsilog’s case, it’s just fried Spam slices, fried egg, and fried rice served with a side of banana ketchup.
Okinawans turn their Spam into goya champuru, a bitter gourd and Spam stir fry dish. Spam is fried lightly together with bitter gourd, eggs, and tofu. Goya champuru is seasoned with mirin and in some cases, sake. For a quick, on-the-go Spam meal, there’s Spam onigiri which looks like a sandwich of rice, Spam, and egg wrapped in seaweed.
South Korean Spam stew’s name tells you all you need to know about its origins. Budae jjigae or “army base stew” adds American processed meat products to traditional Korean hotpot, creating a yummy Korean comfort food. Budae jjigae is every college student’s dream budget meal. It’s made of Spam, ramen noodles, and sausages as well as healthier items like mushrooms and leeks.