What do you think of when you hear the word “Spam”? And let me clarify that I am talking about the tinned variety. We will get to intrusive communications in due course. For most of Spam’s 78-year history, the product has been disparaged and dismissed as inedible and “Something Posing As Meat” or “Scientifically Processed Animal Matter”. Yet, more than eight billion cans have been sold since Hormel launched the product in 1937.
Americans buy 113 million cans of Spam annually. This means 3.8 cans are consumed every second in the United States. To keep up with demand, the slaughterhouse next to the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota butchers 20,000 pigs a day. So how can we reconcile what is bashed so publicly with what is bought in such mass amounts?
Spam was successful out of the gate having grabbed 18% market share in its first year of sales. By 1940, over 70% of Americans had tried Spam which on any measure is incredible. This was largely attributed to an economy still suffering from the Depression and it began Spam’s longstanding association with low-cost and frugality. Sales still spike when times are tough.
During World War II, Spam became a staple for Allied troops who consumed 100 million pounds of the product. The military served for it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This did not mean the soldiers loved it or even liked it. The grunts referred to Spam as “ham that didn’t pass its physical” and “meatloaf without basic training”. Similar to the history of Coca-Cola, Spam was introduced to local residents wherever troops were stationed. It remains incredibly popular in South Korea, Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii.
After the war, and not by choice, Hormel was forced to invest a great deal in advertising and promotion. Soldiers that had returned home were not interested in consuming the same food the military had forced on them. Hormel countered a great of this opposition by providing recipes that integrated Spam into a range of dishes. In 1949, the company established the Hormel Girls, a unique traveling troupe of 60 women who danced and played music that featured Hormel products. Post-war advertisements attempted to distance Spam from the meat-in-a-can image by casting it as a prime dinner ingredient.
Spam has always attempted to move upstream with limited success. By the early 1970’s the name Spam became the Kleenex of the food industry. It was used generically to describe any tinned meat product or luncheon meat. Over the years, Spam has prompted liberal amounts of jokes and countless pop culture references. It seems we cannot get enough of putting Spam down.
Spam is a combination of ham, pork, sugar, salt, water, potato starch and a hint of sodium nitrite. The latter is “to help Spam keep its gorgeous pink color,” according to Hormel’s website (the word “gorgeous” is an interesting choice). The meat is vacuum-sealed in a can and does not require refrigeration. This means Spam can last for years. Hormel likens it to “meat with a pause button.”
It is also affordable (approximately US$2.50 a can), accessible (it is available in 44 countries and 99% of American grocery stores), lasts long (up to 5 years so it is good for the zombie apocalypse), and is easy to transport (Spam’s enviable molecular stability is encased in a tough tin that withstands drops from high heights).
Inside it resembles a small, pink jiggly brick. It is soft and easy to slice. For many, the clear gelatin (or aspic) is a little off putting. Spam comes precooked so can be eaten cold out of the can but most consumers cook it as part of a dish or heat it. To be fair, it is basically made from the same stuff as hot dogs but with less unsavory meat sources. To give you a clue as to the Spam production process, employees are called “formulators”.
The product is not exactly healthy. A 12-ounce can is said to contain 6 servings. A single serving holds 16 grams of fat and that includes 6 grams of saturated fat. One serving also holds 33% of the daily recommended allowance of sodium and a good blast of cholesterol. If you were to chow down on the entire tin for yourself you would be consuming nearly 100 grams of fat, more than 1,000 calories, 240 milligrams of cholesterol, and a heart pounding 4,696 milligrams of sodium.
Spam now comes in a low sodium format and a variety of flavors. There is Cheese, Hot & Spicy, Black Pepper, Jalapeño, Chorizo, Teriyaki, Hickory Smoked, Oven Roasted Turkey, Bacon, and Garlic amongst others. Hormel encourages consumers to use Spam in many ways. It can be grilled, pan-fried, broiled, sautéed, baked, and used in sandwiches, pasta salads, pizzas, casseroles, stir-fries, and soups.
Recipes range from the traditional to the intriguing to the downright puzzling. One can enjoy Spam-based lettuce wraps, wontons, potpies, corn chowder, bacon-wrapped Spam, croissant surprise, potato pierogi casserole, asparagus roll-ups, and broccoli soufflé. There is also Spam Wellington, Spam fries, Spam pad Thai, and Spam truffle ramen. And for dessert there is Spam and macadamia nut sundaes, Spam brownies, and Spam upside-down pie (I have made none of this up).
The company has balanced honoring history and tradition with subtle efforts to change the perception of Spam. This has resulted in a unique, delightful and enduring brand of authenticity all its own. Nicole Behne, the Spam brand manager, says “You really can’t change the fabric of who you are. We have to embrace it and work with it.” It would be incredibly unproductive to fight certain associations and there is good sense to leverage the mostly good-natured attention Spam receives.
Hormel facilitates the Spam culture by offering supporting products like a Spam joke book, Spam air fresheners, a Spam Turkey can candle, Spam can wine charmers and Spam emblazoned bowling shirts. And if you visit Austin, Minnesota then you can checkout the Spam museum or sample new recipes at over 80 state and regional fairs that hold Spam cooking contests. Hormel’s marketing is almost entirely grassroots proving it knows its customers.
Yet, the company seems to struggle with where to take Spam. The flavor extensions and healthier options suggest they want to sell more, more often, to more people which is a basic marketing mantra. However, there is still over 70 years of perception that Spam is a low-cost, questionable quality alternative to overcome.
The big issue is consumers have not been convinced to roll out Spam at a dinner party. This is the last frontier for Spam (and Spam’s marketing department). Many households consume Spam in significant amounts but they do it like a dirty little secret. I believe it is placed at the back of the pantry so as not to invite judgment. Just think of the rise in revenue if we could be convinced to roll out the following amazing menu for guests or our own families.
It would start with delicious Spam Nigiri with ginger rice and seared Spam potstickers with Tahini Sauce. These delicacies would be augmented by quartered Spam jalapeño quesadillas and Spam sliders. Then Spam and gnocchi soup would be offered from an ornate tureen. The main course would feature a tantalizing array of dishes ranging from Spam skewered with pineapples, turkey Spam-stuffed pasta shells, and Spam Mahalo cabbage cups. Spam fried rice and Spam scalloped potatoes would be great accompaniments. Lastly, we would finish it off with a beautiful Spam upside-down pie.
That meal would certainly help sales and perhaps change perceptions but something is missing. And that something is alcohol. Hormel would do additionally well if they could factor Spam into some interesting beverages (as a garnish, of course). Restaurant Eve in Washington serves a drink called, “I Am Virginia”. It is an ode to the Old Dominion with Wasmund’s single-malt whisky, Madeira, and local figs. The finishing touch is a bite of Virginia ham, dried, skewered on a long toothpick propped atop the glass and combined with salt for the rim. Spam and scotch – now there is an idea.
Two Additional Spam Stories and a Gallery of Spam Dishes
Spam … A lot
The tinned product got a big boost due to the popular 1970 Monty Python television sketch. The off-the-wall bit features two customers lowered into a greasy spoon café by wires. Once in place, they try to order breakfast from a menu that includes Spam in almost every dish including “Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce, garnished with truffle pâté, brandy and a fried egg on top, and Spam.”
The diners were eventually drowned out by a group of Vikings singing, “Spam, lovely Spam, wonderful Spam.” According to one theory, Internet pioneers labeled junk e-mail “spam” because it overwhelmed other dialogue like the happy Vikings. Hormel has never enjoyed the association with junk e-mail but has embraced Monty Python and the sketch. In fact, they issued a special tin of Spam for the Broadway premiere of Spamalot.
Asia and Hawaii Love It
World War 2 and the Korean conflict solidified Spam’s adoption in many parts of the world. South Koreans consume more Spam than any other country except the U.S. and it even comes in fancy packaging. Spam flies off the shelves in the Philippines. Each citizen of Guam eats 16 cans annually. Hawaiians eat 12 cans with most it in the form Spam musubi.
Musubi is a popular snack and lunch food in Hawaii composed of a slice of grilled Spam on top of a block of rice, wrapped together with nori dried seaweed. It is commonly found near cash registers in convenience stores. McDonalds and Burger King have recognized Spam’s appeal across the region. Both chains feature it on their menus across Asia.