- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
During World War II, American soldiers stationed overseas had their own terms for Spam. Some called it “ham that didn’t pass its physical,” while others sneered that it was “meatloaf without basic training.” One term bandied about was “Special Army Meat.”
The Hormel Foods Corporation estimates that, from 1941 to 1945, 150 million pounds of Spam were shipped abroad during our country’s military involvement.
Historian Rachel Laudan explains, “Having the sort of food that can survive in the tropical heat and be kept on a shelf for weeks and months was a huge boon.”
That didn‘t stop troops from grumbling when the ubiquitous product was sometimes served to them up to three times a day.
Spam is a Hormel luncheon meat that was developed during the Great Depression when company president Jay Hormel wanted to offer a budget-friendly product — cheap to make and cheap to buy — that could also rid the company of a surplus of stored pork shoulder.
The term Spam originated in 1937 during a New Year’s Eve party, when Jay Hormel held a competition to name its new item.
The winning designation was a spontaneously created word — with no particular meaning — from Ken Daigneau, a New York radio actor. Daigneau was awarded $100, a hefty amount at a time when the federal minimum wage was 25 cents per hour.
At first, many people assumed the product name was a combination of “spice” and “ham,” although Spam has neither ingredient. (Salt, plentiful in Spam, is a mineral and not a spice.)
One urban legend claimed that Spam was an acronym for “Scientifically Processed Animal Matter,” while another said that Spam was short for “Shoulder of Pork and Ham.”
To this day, Spam still remains somewhat of a mystery meat to many consumers. In reality, it is a six-ingredient, precooked mashup of pork, water, salt, potato, sugar, and, as a preservative, sodium nitrate.
As the most processed of processed meats, it has always raised red flags about its nutritional attributes, due to its high content of fat, sodium, and preservatives.
Following the war years, Spam came to be seen not just as a convenient protein source but also as a tasty side dish. By the 1960s, it had become a common kitchen commodity, some people mixing it with the morning eggs, while others used it for lunchtime sandwiches.
Spam is currently available around the world. After America, its biggest customer is South Korea, where it is often considered a luxury gift and is available in an elaborate gift box.
Hawaii, though, is where the most Spam is consumed per person, as 1.5 million residents in the Aloha State devour up to 7 million cans annually. It is often eaten as a delicacy wrapped in seaweed and rice.
Unfortunately, Spam now shares its name (sans the capital S) with annoying, unwanted internet ads. This has led to a joke about a computer operator who once warned, “If you get an email from me about canned meat, don’t open it. It’s spam.”
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.