The Yuck and the Gristle-less: Spam has a bad rep - but millions love it

PHOTOS: COURTNEY MARABELLA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Musubi is a Hawaiian snack of Spam layered with sushi rice and nori.
PHOTOS: COURTNEY MARABELLA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Musubi is a Hawaiian snack of Spam layered with sushi rice and nori.
Posted: March 29, 2013

THE INDUSTRY'S Pat Szoke is a chef, but if he ever decides to hang up his apron, he's got a future in diplomacy. That much became clear last month when he adroitly responded to a question I likely pose more than I should: Do you like Spam?

"I wouldn't say it's my number one choice," replied Szoke, who was seeking ideas for a limited-time menu inspired by the tastes of local food and drink writers. He'd never sampled Hormel's tinned wonder meat, a high point of American ingenuity that's somehow become "one of the most reviled foodstuffs known to man," according to Philly-based author Carolyn Wyman's 1999 book, Spam: A Biography. But he knew enough to approach the product with a healthy helping of skepticism.

Despite Szoke's polite apprehension, he went through with my suggestion, searing up Spam and serving it with garlic fried rice, fried eggs and a cherry tomato salad - a gussied-up version of Filipino tapsilog, the humble breakfast plate. (The Industry, in Pennsport, will offer it through Sunday.) It got me thinking about salty, satisfying Spam's ability to stratify, something it's been doing since it was introduced to the market in 1937.

Growing up with a Filipino mother and her large extended family, I've been buying, cooking, eating and loving Spam my entire life. For this, more than a few people think I'm insane. But why?

Identification issues are likely the most nagging culprit.

" 'What's in there?' " lifelong Spam eater Jillian Encarnacion, the Filipino-American general manager of Twenty Manning Grill, recalls uninitiated friends asking. "I don't know how to answer that question. It's meat!"

The official company line: Classic Spam contains pork shoulder, ham, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrite. It's manipulated into a smooth, consistent, easily fryable product ("miracle meat," the original tagline brags) before being squeezed into its signature pop-top blue-and-yellow can, the vehicle for its stultifying longevity.

"The whole fact that it's meat in a can and it sits on a shelf - it can sit around two, three, four years or even longer, and you can open it up and still eat it," said Szoke. "That kind of weirds people out."

In the 1930s, pork shoulder was considered useless by the meat industry because of the effort required to properly wrest the meat from the bone. Minnesota-based Hormel developed Spam - a portmanteau for either "spiced ham" or "shoulder of pork and ham"- to capitalize on the unglamorous but profitable cut. "It's a classic case of processed-food genius," said Spam biographer Wyman, who grew up in Rhode Island eating her mother's Spam, baked-bean and pineapple casserole. "Take something worthless that nobody wanted, then advertise the heck out of it until it's something people actually want."

At what point did Spam, as Wyman writes, "[transcend] its gastronomic origins to become a symbol of American popular culture on a level with Elvis and baseball"? That'd be during World War II, when Spam, thanks to its filling nature, portability and resilience, was taken on as a ration by American armed forces. (At one point in the mid-'40s, 90 percent of Hormel's canned goods went to the military.) This era is the seed of Spam hatred, as GIs forced to consume the stuff three or more times a day predictably began to revolt against it.

The Lend-Lease Act, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, led to America sending ungodly amounts of Spam to the United Kingdom, where it became such a dietary staple that it inspired the famous Monty Python skit lampooning its ubiquity. (That's how junk email ended up being called spam, too.) Spam became "this kind of funny or ridiculed food, when it didn't start out that way," said Wyman.

But the American military's adoption of Spam is also the reason it's treated as religion in places like the Philippines, Hawaii and Guam.

"I did not grow up with the notion that it was a gross thing at all," said Kiki Aranita, who, in April, will launch Poi Dog Truck, a Hawaiian food cart, with Chris Vacca. "[It's] my most favorite thing in the whole world, besides puppies." Aranita, who split her childhood between Oahu and Hong Kong, plans on serving Spam dishes, like saimin (a noodle soup), eggy breakfast tacos and musubi, the beloved Hawaiian snack consisting of Spam layered with sushi rice and nori.

Back at The Industry, Szoke said that he was surprised by Spam the first time he tried it. "Having made plenty of terrines and sausages, the texture was pretty decent," he said. "It's like a canned charcuterie." He compared it to Italian mortadella, in which "you don't really know what's in it unless you're making it yourself."

Locally, I feel as though Spam shares some salty DNA with Philly's beloved pork roll, in terms of its decidedly nonartisanal appeal - the right amounts of sodium, fat and sugar, turned fat-kid alchemical when crisped in a buttered hot pan. If you like Taylor ham, you'll like Spam.

"No one in this part of the country, where we eat scrapple and pork roll, should be casting aspersions on Spam," said Wyman. "Spam is right in the mold of those products, and I would argue it's just as tasty, if not tastier."

Audrey Claire chef Lou Boquila, who was born in the Philippines, is another vocal Spam proponent from the restaurant world. "I don't see the difference between [Spam] and hot dogs or bologna," he said. "People say, 'Why do you eat that?' I say, ' Why not?' "

"Once you start eating it," promised Aranita, with all the conviction of a crowd-commanding politician, "you won't think it's that scary."


Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene for more than six years. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.

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