In some ways, SPAM is the Paris Hilton of the supermarket. It’s always there, it’s a perpetual punchline, everybody knows its name and no one really knows why it’s so popular. SPAM’s moments in contemporary pop culture have been mocking — it’s the name given to all the “junk” in our email, while a silly musical, Spamalot, put SPAM’s name in lights on Broadway.
But obviously someone eats SPAM, because it has been on grocery store shelves since it was trademarked (as, yes, “SPAM,” all caps) in 1937. A peek into the past of the canned meat product made by Hormel Foods Corporation proves it to be far more interesting than Hilton could ever dream of being.
Meatpacker George Hormel founded his company 1891 and the family built the meat business into a leading American corporation that, while probably best known for SPAM, also makes canned chilis and stews, as well as lunch meat and other products. Jay Hormel launched SPAM and other low-cost “meals” during The Great Depression and the company sent it as rations to feed American soldiers during World War II, giving SPAM a “patriotic” reputation. SPAM’s popularity stuck in states and territories with armed service bases — in Hawaii, for example, fast food restaurants like McDonald’s even serve it.
Hormel is headquartered in Austin, Minn., home to the SPAM museum and the annual “SPAM Jam” festival. Austin is also home to Quality Pork Processors Inc., the company’s meat processing plant, according to a recent, scathing article in Mother Jones magazine about Hormel’s and QPP’s questionable handling of alleged “kill floor” illnesses amongst employees working what the article calls the “brain machine,” where the head of a pig is dismantled then exploded to extract slurry. See, SPAM even has a dark side.
I’m not sure how I’ve gotten away with never tasting SPAM. After making fun of it for so long, why would anyone want to? Because it’s still a low-cost product, good for these times of economic woe, and old jokes never ruined the reputation of Ramen noodles enough to scare me off.
It was time to get off my high horse and give SPAM a chance. Hormel offers variations and there are endless weird recipes and prep suggestions. I got a can of the “Classic” stuff and fried up a
couple slices to experience it as “Hawaiian steak,” as it’s sometimes known.
The list of ingredients has “pork with ham” at the top, which confused me, but I tried not think about it as I yanked back the pull-tab and squeezed out the pink meat glob onto a plate, the gelatinous preservatives glistening and a cat-food-ish odor filling the air.
The odor improved as the quarter-inch-thick slices cooked, resembling a less flavorful bacon aroma. Cooking also made it seem more ham-like and I was happy to discover that, once cooked, SPAM’s flavor resembles its lead ingredients. The overall flavor is similar to a pork chop, while the lightly browned sides are crispy, giving it a bacon-y texture and flavoring.
Before I knew it, my first piece was gone. Wait, I like SPAM? Well, it’s not the start of a long love affair, but if times get tougher, I’d never make an “ewwww” face if SPAM found its way onto my shopping list. Unless I thought about where it came from.
In the aftermath of my surprising taste test, I wondered: Should I not be so hard on Paris Hilton? Maybe, in my newfound spirit of fairness, I’ll give her a try and pick up the latest Paris Hilton. Uh, now what is she famous for?
CONTACT MIKE BREEN: [email protected]