Lovely Spam. Wonderful Spam. Monty Python's classic sketch cast Hormel's combination of pork shoulder and ham meat as an inescapable food sensation. While nerd culture has made such a joke of Spam that it's become synonymous with a flood of unwanted information, in many parts of the world the skit is more documentary than parody.
Except for the vikings, of course.
Introduced in 1937 during the tail-end of the Great Depression, Spam is a meat product consisting of chopped pork shoulder, ham meat, salt, water, modified potato starch to stick it all together and enough sodium nitrate to render it essentially immortal.
It's a food created in hard times, and hard times contributed to its spreading across the globe. In the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and Hawaii, where Spam is so widely consumed it appears on the menu at McDonald's, the product was introduced during U.S. military occupation following World War II. A surfeit of military rations was also how Spam gained a foothold in Japan, the Philippines and Korea. The Lend-Lease sharing program that saw the U.S. supplying materials to Allied forces during World War II brought Spam to the United Kingdom and Russia.
World War II was very, very good to Hormel.
In the continental United States of today, Spam suffers under the stigma of being a food for the poor, cheap leftovers for those that can't afford prime cuts of meat. We're like Spam hipsters, happy to eat it when it was new and necessary, then turning up our noses at it after the rest of the world realized how cool it was. I used to get tins of Spam as a gag gift from my family for Christmas. In South Korea it's considered an essential gift to offer when invited to visit another person's home, the crown jewel of a gift basket consisting of other, lesser meat preserves.
Spam gift baskets! Image courtesy Photo Adventures: Korea!
Why do so many Americans turn up their nose at Spam? I believe much of the revulsion stems from the presentation. In the U.S. we've cultivated an appetite for food that looks edible. For instance, it doesn't matter how many horrible bits of leftover meat and bone you grind up into a fine paste, once it's in a sausage casing we'll eat the hell out of it.
Hell, look at Chicken McNuggets. At one point in their life, McNuggets are nothing more than a disgusting pink goop, crawling with bacteria and waiting for an ammonia bath before being recolored, re-flavored and reshaped. I know this—I've had nightmares about it—yet I still purchase and consume McNuggets on a fairly regular basis, because they are golden brown and delicious.