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.
Spam, on the other hand, looks like congealed pink gloop.
There are people that will look at this picture and feel their stomach begin to rumble and their salivary glands kick into overdrive. These are people that have been raised to eat food that sustains them, regardless of how it looks. It makes it much easier for them to appreciate and discover new edible things.
So while mainland Americans recoil from the sight of Spam, folks in other cultures pop open that tin with reckless abandon, slicing off hunks and munching away. I imagine many of them hold their noses, because unprepared Spam smells pretty horrible.
The taste, on the other hand, isn't half bad, especially if you're a big fan of salt. Minus the preservatives and modified potato starch, Spam isn't far removed from the inexpensive spreadable meats you might find in the cheese and cracker section of your local supermarket. The texture is a little tricky to navigate, but once you get past the aspic—essentially meat Jell-O—that gives the product its glaze, it's downright tasty.
For review purposes I've limited myself to unprepared Spam, because once you start getting into more fancy Spam recipes it becomes readily apparent that most of them involve cancelling out the taste in order to preserve the texture. Perhaps the purest means of preparing Spam is frying it up in a pan. The pork and ham flavors really come to life when fried, and that aspic crisps up really nicely, giving the pink stuff more bite.
If you're looking for Spam recipes, I suggest looking to those of Hawaiian or Korean origin. Those folks know how to make preserved meat sing. Avoid novelty recipes, like Foodbeast's Spam and Peanut Butter Cookies—featuring candied Spam—as they lean towards muffling the natural taste of the product, using it for nothing more than shock value.
Spam is one of the most successful packaged process foods on the planet, and I came into this review prepared to hate it based on a preconceived notion garnered from youthful dalliance with the product, a bit of writing from a British comedy team and a Weird Al parody of an R.E.M. song. My revulsion stemmed from self-conditioning, and once I overcame it I discovered a completely edible, mildly enjoyable hunk of meat I can pick up in a convenient tin for $2.50. Respect it and it will respect you right back.
Snacktaku is Kotaku's take on the wild and wonderful world of eating things, but not eating meals. Eating meals is for those with too much time on their hands. Past critiques can be found at the Snacktaku review archive.