Learning to feed yourself can be one of the most terrifying things. Am I about to give myself food poisoning? If I eat this too often will I end up with scurvy? How can I get the most nutritional bang for my buck? Why does this still taste like ass?
With Ode to My Pantry, learn to navigate a grocery store and a new cuisine without having a meltdown in the “ethnic” food aisle. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a queer to cook with Katrina and stave off malnutrition for another semester.
Spam: it’s good. Well, also, it’s bad. Or, actually, it’s complicated, especially if you think about it a lot like I do. Like technology, superpowers, and human nature, Spam is neither inherently good nor bad, but it comes with a lot of connotations. Prompted by a modest debate a few weeks ago on Slate, I spent some time obsessively researching the history of the canned meat, which played a pretty substantial role in the food pyramid of my childhood. It turns out that I’m not alone in my fixation and enthusiasm, which made me feel that you might be interested too. This is kind of like when I get drunk and lecture about Filipino history, except that I’m sober right now, and maybe you are too. The following is what I found, starting with some facts and followed by some speculations, feelings, and finally, recipes.
Spam has enjoyed a long legacy in America and abroad, even if that legacy hasn’t necessarily enjoyed Spam back. It was introduced into supermarkets in 1937, toward the end of that whole big Great Depression thing. It was a fitting time, as no one had any money but still needed to eat, and if possible, they wanted to eat something that they could trust. Spam was originally intended to be that thing they could trust, presented to American consumers as a less questionable canned meat alternative; while most of its competitors were using lips, snouts, and various unnamed cartilaginous bits, Spam utilized the most food-like parts of the pig: the leg (ham) and the shoulder. In fact, it’s even been rumored that Spam derived its name from said ingredients, (S)houlder (P)ork and h(AM). Could they have done a better job with naming this? Maybe. But Vienna sausages were invented by a guy from Frankfurt, and hot dogs are just not made of dogs, so who are we to judge, right?
Our canned friend increased in circulation during World War II, when it was distributed to American GIs stationed in the Pacific Islands. Spam was the obvious choice for this mission. In addition to being highly transportable and easily preserved, Spam is also pre-cooked and extremely filling.
Objectively, Spam is pretty bad straight out of the can, though I suppose that is an option, if you must. But somewhere down the line, someone learned how to cook it, like actually cook it ( and let’s be real, they were probably someone’s military wife). In countries like South Korea, whose economy had been destroyed by warfare and whose land was being occupied by American soldiers, Spam was like, the shit. While some rejected Spam for its mysterious pink nature, others recognized its flavors (mostly salt) and its culinary potential (endless), pairing it with local ingredients that actually complimented the mass-produced meat product. These traditions have continued in many of these regions, most notably with a Spam Jam competition in Hawaii, a Spam Jam restaurant chain in the Philippines, and Spam-centric menus in Hawaiian McDonalds.
Ok, so there are some things we cannot deny. Spam was born out of the worst economic conditions that the United States has ever faced and gained mass popularity by being distributed to American soldiers stationed in Asian and Pacific islands, locations that would feel the devastating effects of this war for over half a century to come. Not a great track record.
Hormel also doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to treatment of animals, but this is big meat in America. Everything is fucked up if you have even the least bit of a critical lens or moral consciousness. It’s in what you eat, it’s in what you consume. If you shop at WalMart, Urban Outfitters, and Target, if you have it your way at Burger King, if you’re a quinoa junkie or you assuage your meat-guilt with soy, let’s be real, something, somebody, somewhere is being abused, exploited, destroyed, or made into a hamburger. There may be legitimate reasons to dismiss Spam, to dismiss it upon its moral value as if it was singular in this aspect is just sort of narrow.
What about its aesthetic value? Those who quickly deem it “gross” often ignore the fact that food taboos come from a highly subjective and often contentious place. Is Spam gross because poor people eat it? Is it gross because people who don’t look like you eat it? Is it gross because you’ve never tasted it? These foods were shipped out from America into the Pacific, where they were received and interpreted in ways that couldn’t have been imagined on the mainland, and eventually they became parts of culture. If you must shame some aspect of Spam, don’t shame the meat itself or the thousands (millions?) who love it, be critical of the culture that produced it. That culture may just be your own.
Spam may be “gross” because it has no significant nutritional value. And that’s fine, but there’s a time and a place for every food, and chances are that even if you like Spam a whole lot, you’re probably not eating it every day. It’s not a gateway drug like that.
Sometimes you can’t help but love the things you grew up with. For me, Spam feels like Sunday mornings, the only breakfast of the week that I actually sat down for. It reminds me of coffee before I even liked coffee (pouring a cup for aesthetic value) and learning how to appreciate fried eggs (cooked over-easy with the yolk leaked out over white rice). Coming from a culinary culture that puts chopped-up hot dogs in sweet spaghetti, fried canned corned beef hash into rice, and has a ubiquitous presence of Vienna sausages, Spam seems like a shortcut back to the Philippines, the place where I’m from-from, right in my Brooklyn kitchen, feeding me on the cheap every once in a while.
If you can’t get down with a big pink mass, you can’t hate on innovation and versatility. It’s quick, it’s cheap, and Spam doesn’t discriminate – it tastes good with the sweet, the savory, and the bland alike. It’s good to go for any meal. As my friend Charlotte, a California-born Vietnamese-American says, it’s “the maize of our people.”
And! If you’re looking for an opinion from someone who wasn’t indoctrinated at a young age, my girlfriend – who ate sauteed pig cartilage with me on our first date and was extremely receptive to bone marrow when out to lunch with my parents – initially refused to try Spam. When I cooked for this article and had her try a piece, she deemed it “not horrible.” So there we go. You gotta start somewhere, you know?
So on that note, let’s start somewhere. Here are two few quick, easy introductory recipes to Spam, as well as some suggestions for further exploration.
O-musubi is a Japanese food that’s made by surrounding a salty or sour ingredient (salmon, dried tuna, roe) with white rice and wrapping it in nori seaweed. Predictably, Spam musubi, which originated in Hawaii, takes this concept and replaces the traditional filling with – you guessed it – marinated Spam. I made them mini for no other reason than the fact I think it’s cute.
Chili flakes (optional)
Strips of nori seaweed
- Cook yo’ rice. One cup uncooked rice makes about two cups cooked rice, do with that what you will. Pour your chosen amount of rice into a pot, and fill the pot with enough water to cover the top section of your pinky. I swear this works. Cook to a rolling boil and then put the heat down to its lowest setting and let it cook partially covered until it, y’know, looks like rice.
- Slice the Spam thin off the original block, and then cut those slices width-wise so you have three or four little pieces per original slice.
- Make your “marinade!” Combine soy sauce, chili flakes, and pineapple juice in a small bowl, and add ingredients to taste, depending on how savory or sweet you prefer your Spam. Some other recipes use white sugar instead of pineapple juice, but it really sucks trying to clean sugar off of pans. You can do it though, just make sure to clean up properly afterwards.
- Fry yo’ Spam. Put it in a pan over medium heat (as is – Spam doesn’t need butter or oil to fry), and when it starts to sizzle, pour your marinade in, not enough to totally cover the Spam, but enough so that the flavor can be soaked up. Once this happens, it’s important not to leave the Spam in there for too long. It cooks pretty quickly, especially if it’s thinly sliced.
- Mush the rice together into little blocks the length and width of your Spams. You may have to squish it a little to get it to stick.
- Place your Spam on top of the block of rice.
- Wrap a strip of nori around it. The seaweed will stick to the rice, so have the two ends meet at the bottom for a full wraparound.
This was adapated from a few different recipes and works with Spam’s versatility. Spam has a reputation for playing well with others, including sweet and spicy tastes. It’s a sandwich, so this is really simple.
Pineapple slice (if canned, the juice can be used for the musubi marinade)
Mayo or vegannaise
Sriracha (or any Thai chili sauce)
- Slice the Spam (thickness is up to you!) and fry it. I prefer it crispy.
- Mix Sriracha and mayo to taste.
- Toast your English muffin (or don’t! Whatever!).
- Stack all the ingredients in a sandwichy manner.
Other really amazing Spam dishes include Spam with garlic fried rice and egg, Spam fried rice with veggies, and pretty much anything that you would eat with bacon. The possibilities are basically endless. Are you convinced? If so, how do you Spam?
I personally find Spam to be weird, but I come from a kosher-keeping background that makes the quintessential American cheeseburger to be fucking disgusting, so eh? I don’t hate on Spam, or it’s place in other people’s lives – it’s a “just me” thing, you know. I’ll eat non-kosher chicken and beef, but pork products? Ew, I don’t want that, unless it’s sausage. Apparently, I love sausage in all its forms.
That said, I prefer to get the Spam Turkey kind when making Spam recipes. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Hilarity ensues.
Well, I’m vegan so I won’t be trying the recipes, but the article was really interesting anyway. Food history is often an eye opening topic.
Spam with garlic fried rice and eggs is the best, but spam-dipped-in-sugar-and-then-fried-till-gooey-crispy, garlic fried rice and eggs is even better.
oh, dang. wudup, spam.
I like your discussion of the history and pros/cons of Spam.
I’m an 80’s child. Spam for life. Standard.
Do you prefer Spam, Egg, Spam, Spam, Bacon and Spam or Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Baked Beans, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam?
excellent contribution. well played.
I’ve never had Spam, as I’m kosher, but I’ve learned quite a bit about pig from this article.
My mom’s from Hawaii, and so although she and my dad were obsessively organic eaters during my childhood, Spam was the one exception. We always ate it with rice.
this was fascinating
no one has ever quite made me want to try spam like you just have. you have a way with words, katrina. although i have to admit that i think the only way i would ever try it is if someone served it to me.
we can arrange this, emily choo.
During the Korean War, S. Koreans had such little to eat, they would raid dumpsters near military bases, take what scraps they could find and make spicy stews with spam, hot dogs, baked beans, macaroni and whatever else was available.
The actual Korean name sounds like “booty.” Booty stew. The literal translation of the name is “army base” stew and still remains a favorite among Koreans.
Well, it’s mostly just drunk food now, because Koreans like getting plastered then reminiscing about the war/past while eating booty.
“…reminiscing about the war/past while eating booty.” this is glorious.
a love of booty is one among many similarities i think i may have with korean culture
You forgot to mention how much the Knights of the Round Table enjoyed Spam.
Fun fact: The reason we call excessive emailing/posting ‘spam’ is because of that Monty Python sketch where everything on the menu is spam.
in which katrina teaches everyone how to cook rice using the finger method. yes.
SPAM MUSUBI!! Katrina, you make me so happy that you know all the recipes of my childhood. If I had known more about this article before it’s posting, I gladly would have taken a photo of the Hawaii McDonald’s menu for you (because yeah, spam on that menu is definitely a thing).
Also someone did something weird, and now we have spam-flavored macadamia nuts in supermarkets too? I am terrified to try them, but somebody put them on shelves almost a year ago and they haven’t gone away.
Awesome piece! Fascinating history and cool recipes. I love spam all ways including straight out of the can.
This brings back a lot of childhood memories! Spam was a go-to food for my parents when they wake up late and didn’t prepare a much decent breakfast and lunch (“baon” – a viand we eat with white rice, which we take to school in a tupperware so we don’t have to buy from the canteen). A personal favorite is “Spam-de sal” – instead of using loaf bread, we use Pan de sal (Pan de sal, or “salt bread,” is a yeasted Filipino bread made with eggs, sugar and salt.)
Also I remember that back in the 90s, households that have Spam in their pantry are considered “sosy” because access to this imported food was very limited back then, they only sold it in Military bases, or “balikbayan” or people who went abroad brings back Spam instead of souvenirs, LOL!. “Imported” was somehow tantamount to being rich….a vast majority of us are big on Western influences since way back..
Also, THIS is very true: “Coming from a culinary culture that puts chopped-up hot dogs in sweet spaghetti, fried canned corned beef hash into rice, and has a ubiquitous presence of Vienna sausages…”
*IDK why but we do really do have pieces of hotdog in our sweet spaghetti, maybe because it acts as an extender for pork/beef and it looks better because it is also red in color? LOL
*I rarely eat corned beef straight out of the can, we fry it with onions and garlic..yummy!
*ugh, Vienna sausages…my roommate always have stocks of this, she loves it, last night she opened a large can which she ate for dinner….then the left-overs for breakfast..
Very nice article, thank you for writing it esp the recipes! Comprehensive and relatable, and the theory on how the name was derived…wow! ^_^
I loved this article, and I would also love to hear your drunken lecturing. (My Drunk Pinoy History? Can that be a thing?)
this can be a thing depending on how many times you’re willing to hear me slur through the phrase “imperialist bastards”
This article makes me very happy! I get a lot of frowns and “ewww, gross!” when I make my spam sandwiches. So thank you Katrina for sharing. :)
“fried canned corned beef hash into rice” + a fried egg on top.—YES!!! Dutch-Indonesians love it too!
I was not into this until the spam garlic fried rice and egg. That sounds amazing. Also, really anything with eggs, so. My cooking motto is pretty much “put an egg on it.”
There are so many things I want to say about this article–how spam was a big part of my childhood, camping trips, and a white rich man’s reaction to spam musubi at a Thanksgiving dinner–but this is all I can really articulate at the moment: I am so fucking glad that I am not the only Katrina with strong feelings about spam.
I love this! My girlfriend is Filipino and mad about Spam, Vienna sausages and rice with egg. I’m vegetarian so I don’t partake, but if I ever switch to the dark side, Spam is on the list.
You just made me want to eat SPAM. How does this happen? Oh, good writing, that’s how it happens.
Spam and greens. The greens are so healthy they cancel out the Spam’s unhealthiness, and the Spam is so salty it cancels out the greens’ boring-ness.
SPAM gets NO respect. Thank you for writing this. I’m from Guam (and am half Filipina), so this makes me all kinds of happy. Mmm SPAM, eggs and rice, SPAM musubi, SPAM kelaguen… nom nom nom. If you’re interested in nerding out about SPAM, anthropologist Ty Matejowsky wrote an article (and several others about the PI and SPAM) called “Spam and Fast-Food ‘Glocalization’ in the Philipines” and it is bomb.com.
Yes to this article on so many levels! I was just teaching my girlfriend how to measure water with your finger when cooking rice. She is also not on board with Spam…yet. Just wait till I make Spam fried rice!
I LOVE SPAM!!! haha. Have you ever tried it with onions and oyster sauce? It is amazing!
Spam musubi! i love it :o
I am half-Korean and as I child I ate Spam egg and rice pretty regularly. A lot of people deem Spam as ‘gross’ before even trying it, but I always tell people if you can eat a hot dog then you can give Spam a chance. Especially when it’s cooked in the frying pan.
My ex introduced me to spam (at least something good came of that!) and at first I was repulsed at the thought of it. Pink meat in a can? Yuck. But once you get past its looks you’ll see it’s pretty damn great. It should be a student staple; it wont go bad, it’s versatile and is easy to cook when you are hungover. And it’s so misunderstood your flatmates wont steal it. Ever. Fried spam and eggs, spam omelette and spam hash are the best, and it’s also good in mac and cheese!