People either love it—or hate it. So says Marguerite Patten in the Introduction to her book “SPAM – THE COOKBOOK” first published by Hamlyn, an imprint of Octopus Publishing Group in 2000. Sue Erwin tells me she loves it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love it – but I had a can in the pantry so I opened it, sliced off some Spam and put it on crackers. Instant nostalgia – it brought back childhood memories of taking Spam sandwiches to school. I have to tell you – don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it! SPAM is so popular that the Los Angeles County Fair (one of the largest county fairs in the entire country) has had a SPAM recipe contest for the past decade. Southern Californians happily demonstrate their ingenuity and creativity using SPAM. One year’s Fair cookbook featured California Teriyaki Turkey Spam Sesame Sushi and Spam Turkey Pockets (made with Oven Roasted Turkey Spam). Apparently, Hormel sponsors a SPAM contest at county fairs throughout the country. The winning recipes of 70-something SPAM recipe contests held at county fairs are then forwarded to the chefs at Hormel for a final judging—I read about this in a Los Angles Times article but the newspaper article neglected to state what the grand prize winner gets for this.
“Spam,” writes Marguerite, “is one of only a tiny number of brand-name food products that everybody knows. From its humble beginnings in Austin, Minnesota, it has become a symbol of American culture, a powerful icon in both the USAand many other parts of the world…”
Marguerite says that SPAM’s hold on the American people is so great that it is even featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “Spam,” notes Marguerite, “is as representative of American life as apple pie or Coca-Cola.”
Spam was first developed,” Marguerite writes, “In the 1930s by J. C. Hormel, president of Geo. A. Hormel & Co., as a way to use up the pork shoulder meat left over from the pork industry. This was good quality meat but was difficult to cut off the bone in decent size pieces. Its ‘leftover’ status made it an unlikely basis for a new product, but the last 60 years have proven its success…”
“It was slow to get started,” Marguerite writes, “because the American housewife of the time had been brought up to believe that meat that had not been stored in the refrigerator could make you ill. But soon the idea of canned foods took hold and since then SPAM has not looked back.”
Most of you are undoubtedly too young to remember this, but SPAM first reached icon status during World War II, feeding our troops – often morning,noonand night. It was one of the most widely used military foodstuffs among US troops, Marguerite notes, “but allied troops also received SPAM in their rations and it was used to feed starving Russians during the German occupation..”
Because it was served sp frequently, it became an object of ridicule while in wartimeBritain, SPAM was an important part of the national diet, not only for the troops but for hungry civilians as well, providing a good source of protein at a time when fresh meat was heavily rationed.
“Over the years,” Marguerite writes, “SPAM has beaten off its many competitors and imitators and still prospers to this day as an all-American product, one that has been kind to the 1600Austin(Minnesota) residents who work for Hormel Foods…as well as the meat processors and hog farmers who make a living from it. SPAM is so much part of the town’s identity (Hormel Foods helped to build the hospital and library and donates generously to local charities) thatAustinis now officially known asSPAM Town,USA, and uses this honorable title to promote itself…”
Marguerite observes that SPAM is sold in virtually every grocery store inAmericaand that we consume about 90 million cans a year. Hawaiians eat the most SPAM per year –about twice the National average. “The Hawaiians,” writes Marguerite, “are obsessed with SPAM, consuming over twice the national average, about four cans of SPAM per person every year. They especially love their favorite pork product in sushi – SPAM musubi, a rice cake topped with pickled plum, a slice of fried SPAM, and wrapped with nori seaweed. This dish even rivals pizza as the school cafeteria favorite….” (You’ll excuse me if I pass on that. I’m not fond of sushi and the one time an Okinawan neighbor persuaded me to try a pickled plum, I thought my mouth was going to turn inside out).
“SPAM”, Marguerite notes, “is now sold all over the world and, as an American product, it has great prestige in many societies, and is considered on a par with baseball caps and McDonald’s…” She says that South Koreais one of the most rapidly expanding markets, where SPAM is considered a gourmet luxury and is often presented as a gift, like luxury chocolates and fine wines. And Guam, she adds, has a huge appetite for SPAM, its citizens consuming an average eight cans of SPAM per person per year.
Not only that, it may surprise you to learn that over the years, there have been hundreds of SPAM fan clubs, and SPAM festivals all over the USA with recipe competitions, dressing up and SPAM sculpting events. As I noted at the very beginning of this review, there is a SPAM recipe contest at the Los Angeles County Fair. Inasmuch as I collect the fair cookbooks, I dug back into the files to see how many years the SPAM contest has been held at the fairgrounds inPomona,California. And now, Hormel offers a variety of other SPAM items for its followers – you can buy SPAM boxer shorts or SPAM sandals, SPAM Christmas tree ornaments or SPAM babywear.
SPAM luncheon meat, we have learned, was the brainchild of the president of Hormel, Jay C. Hormel, son of the founder, George, who had created this company out of what started out as a modest retail butcher shop. George wasn’t initially impressed with Jay’s idea but once all of the production problems had been overcome, the question remaining was, what to call it? Originally, writes Marguerite, it was known as chopped ham but a catchier name was required.
“The lack of name,” Marguerite explains, “caused considerable delay before the canned luncheon meat appeared on the market…by 1936 there was a satisfactory product – ready to be sold – but one without a name…”
She says that “It is reported that Jay Hormel decided to stage a New Year’s party for the express purpose of naming ‘his baby’. Guests were to be entitled to a drink for each name they suggested and there would be a prize of $100 for the winner. The host is believed to have commented at a later date that ‘by the fourth drink’ people began to show some imagination…”
The name SPAM was suggested by Kenneth Daigneau, brother of the Hormel vice-president and an actor who was a guest at the party. . SPAM was launched in theUSAin May, 1937 and began to sell well in spite of the fact that within a very short time, there were over one hundred competitors. Because SPAM was an inexpensive meat, even poor families could afford to buy it. By 1938 SPAM had become so popular that it received an award for the best company development of 1937. But it was really World War II that made SPAM famous.
In March of 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act which provided aid to the Allied Forces, and many businesses, including Hormel, moved into wartime production. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the USjoined the Allies and SPAM was fed to servicemen—by 1944, 90% of all Hormel canned foods were exported to various theaters of war. Marguerite explains in her book, “SPAM THE COOKBOOK” how wartimeBritain benefited from SPAM, which was even used to feed school children. The book also provides SPAM memories from people who survived the war and have fond memories of the canned meat that kept them from starving.
What follows is a variety of recipes, ranging from super sandwiches, recipes for parties, SPAM appetizers such as SPAM porcupines, and a lot of other up-to-date recipes for SPAM that I bet you’ve never thought of before—Thai Spam cakes and SPAMburgers, pineapple grilled SPAM or pork and fruit stir-fry.
What’s in the future for SPAM? Well, it’s still a favorite food throughout much of the world. SPAM even has a website – go to www.spam.com and find out about fan clubs and catalogue items. I think the future for SPAM is very bright; one only needs to read through Marguerite Patten’s book, “SPAM THE COOKBOOK” to discover the many new and ingenious ways of serving SPAM. SPAM is still going strong!
SPAM THE COOKBOOK my Marguerite Patten is available on Alibris.com for 99c (or up, if you want to pay more. Amazon.com has copies starting at one cent. Remember the charge for shipping and handling is $3.99.
Happy cooking..,. maybe.