Table for One

The Lonely Legacy of Spam

Once seemingly alone in their love for the canned meat product, many Asian Americans today are finding comfort in each other’s shared histories.

by:
December 18, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Sophie Strangio.

Table for One is a column by Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


“Spam is the ultimate loner food,” said the chef Esther Choi, who lives in a one-bedroom by herself in New York City. Working late hours to keep the lights on at all of her restaurants, Ms. Yoo and two Mŏkbar locations (with one more on the way), Choi doesn’t get to cook meals at home for herself very often. But when she does, she turns to the simple things: fried Spam, eggs, and Hetbahn, a single serving of Korean microwavable rice. “Even though I’m a chef and I can make anything in the world,” she said, “when I’m by myself, those are the things I want to eat.”

This is a common fugue for many Asian Americans: Spam, eggs, and rice. The nostalgic valances that stem from that salty, pink block of luncheon meat go way back for some of us, not least because it represents a very specific experience: what it was like growing up in America with immigrant parents. Choi remembers, for instance, only eating Spam when her mom and dad were out for the night, usually at work. On such evenings, she and her sister were in charge of feeding themselves and their younger brother. Spam was an obvious choice, not least because it was so easy to heat: Just slice the block into thin rectangles and sear in a dry pan until crispy on both sides, like bacon. (No oil needed. There’s plenty of fat in the product itself.)

Spam advertisements from the 1930s. Photo by Hormel

The thing is, you don’t need to cook Spam (though it’s certainly the best way to eat it). The canned meat is completely shelf-stable, thanks to salt, sugar, and one preservative, sodium nitrite. As for the other ingredients, contrary to popular belief, there really aren’t that many more. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Jay Hormel invented Spam (an alleged portmanteau of “spiced ham”) in 1937 “as a way to peddle the then-unprofitable pork shoulder.”

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Top Comment:
“I'm the oldest of 13, my dad was a carpenter and in the winter when work was scarce, we ended up eating a lot of government cheese, noodles and those horrible instant potatoes that had a weird purplish grey color, as well as a lot of rice and beans. Spam was a treat, sliced for sandwiches (great with a lot of dill pickles) or fried with scrambled eggs. But my favorite was a combo I tried one day, sliced pieces in the bottom of our big cast iron pan, poured corn bread mixture over it and baked, then topped with the beans that were always around. I still make it even tho my husband and I both have good jobs. Its such a comfort food, tho I do use chili beans on top for extra flavor. Just writing about this is making me hungry”
— Rhonda B.
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So there’s the pork, of course, which is ground, plus ham and water. And in 2001, potato starch was added to bind the mixture and to prevent the characteristic layer of gelatin that sat on top of the can for decades until then. For years Hormel Foods Corporation has been fighting the maligned reputation that its star product is somehow “mystery meat” when really it’s just six ingredients plus water. (Spam’s latest campaign is “Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve fried it.”) As its entry in the Oxford Encyclopedia states, in the very second sentence at that: "Spam is popular in Hawaii and Guam and among many families in the American heartland but is viewed by many others as the symbol of everything that is wrong with American processed food.”

For Korean-American multidisciplinary artist Jaime Sunwoo, whose play Specially Processed American Me (aka S.P.A.M.) is set to premiere in late 2021 to early 2022, there’s a glaring reason why Spam is so synonymous with stigma. “It’s a food that many Americans associate with hardship, poverty, and army rations,” she said. “So after the war, they just got really sick of eating it. That’s why you get sketches like Monty Python and the word for email you don’t want.”

During World War II, the United States Army received 150 million pounds of pork luncheon meat, or what soldiers jokingly called “ham that didn't pass its physical,” “meat loaf without basic training,” and “the real reason war was hell.” Even as Americans grew tired of eating it, Spam sales increased after the war. “The overwhelming success of Spam is what drove this collective intolerance to it,” Sunwoo said. It’s no wonder that the Hormel product is now beloved in places where U.S. soldiers were stationed, like Guam, Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.

For Sunwoo, Specially Processed is an opportunity to explore this disjuncture between American and Korean perceptions of Spam, what she calls “one of America’s most misunderstood foods.” “Through this project, I learned about my relatives from North Korea for the first time,” she said. “My dad was born in Pyongyang, and my maternal grandmother in Kaesong. Spam kind of gave me permission to collect a more formal oral history. I asked my grandma about her experiences eating Spam during the Korean War. For her, it was like mana from the heavens. She was so hungry, and to have that was the most delicious thing.” But whenever Sunwoo’s grandmother (now 93 years old and residing in Washington State) takes a bite of Spam, there’s something missing. It doesn’t taste as great. “There are so many other things to eat now,” Grandma Chongyol said. “So why would I eat Spam?”

Why do people eat Spam? This query alone garners 177 million search results on Google. First of all, a lot of easy cooking comes from it. The first dish Sunwoo ever learned to cook was her mother’s Spam fried rice, confettied with freezer-aisle peas, carrots, and corn and topped with a fried egg. Second of all, it’s delicious (if you know, you know). When fried in a skillet, Spam is a coalescence of salty, sweet, crispy, and chewy. When braised, such as in a seething budae jjigae, it mellows out and becomes supple, kimchi-stained. In musubi, it’s the ideal counterpoint, both in flavor and in texture, to the sticky rice and crunchy nori.

For many Asian Americans, eating Spam in America—wonderful though it is—can sometimes feel like an othering experience, bringing with it all of its complicated cultural associations. The greatest irony might be that the Minnesota-based Hormel product is an American foodstuff, born and bred. But when you’re 10, you don’t have the words yet to explain to your classmates the social and historical nuances of why Spam has a completely different reputation in your parents’ home country than it does in the States, and that, as an Asian American, it has the ability to transport you home wherever you are in the world. As Sunwoo said, “The reason we gravitate toward Spam so strongly is because we only eat it at home.” Home food is inherently more intimate, more private, and thus has more potential to be intricately riddled with secrecy, even shame.

When Bettina Makalintal, a food and culture writer at VICE, moved from the Philippines to Philadelphia at age 5, it took her a while to eat Spam publicly. But in the privacy of her home? “It always felt like a treat,” she said. “If my mom wanted to make something that was a little easier, a little less labor-intensive, it would be: rice, eggs, and canned meat. These were the times that we had Spam.” For Makalintal, the combination made sense: breakfast for dinner. Who wouldn’t want that? “In retrospect, I recognize that those were our bare-minimum meals,” she said, “something I ate at home and enjoyed. But in secret. I had a lot of white friends growing up in P.A. and none of them ate it. Or if they did, they didn’t talk about it. So it was something I privately enjoyed and didn’t talk about until I was, I don’t know, 19 or 20. That’s when I realized Spam was tied not just to Filipino culture, but also to other Asian cultures.”

This discovery of Spam’s ubiquity in other Asian-American households, including the shared stigma, was a turning point for Makalintal. By embracing Spam fully, she was able to reclaim not just one of her favorite childhood foods, but also parts of her identity. “I realized at that point in my life what Filipino-American food meant to me, i.e., Spam is something I really like, so why am I afraid to talk about that? Ever since then, I was more publicly appreciative of my Spam eating.”

Similarly, for the chef Jenny Dorsey, founder of nonprofit think tank Studio ATAO, Spam was for years something that made sense to cook and eat in the privacy of her home. “It was the non-perishable staple in our house,” she said. Her parents would buy whole cartons of Spam on sale at Costco. “Not only was it cheap and filling, but it also had that salty, porky flavor we loved. So whenever we weren’t able to get fresh pork, my mom would substitute it with Spam. She’d use it as the salt in her cooking, like in a congee. It was a way to save money and be economical, but not feel that you were hard up in any way.”

“Also,” she added, “it’s just so good with rice.” The first things Dorsey stocked up on at the genesis of the COVID pandemic in March were Spam and rice. They’re still in her pantry, all different flavors. “The regular one is best, of course.” With her stash, Dorsey makes a lot of rice dishes like Spam fried rice, kimchi fried rice with Spam, and Spam porridge. There’s a reason that rice, especially unadulterated steamed white rice, is such an ideal partner with the spiced ham product: It’s comfortingly bland, offering moments of relief from the salty, fatty pork. The two were meant for each other. If rice is a balm, then Spam is a stalwart, providing comfort for Dorsey during a time when she needs it most. “It feels nourishing,” she said. “Not just physically nourishing, but mentally nourishing, as well.”

Chef Lucas Sin, who contributed a recipe to The Ultimate Spam Cookbook (a branded release from Hormel that came out this year), remembers developing a taste for spiced ham as a latchkey kid and realizing its potential as an ingredient to cook with. “The more time you’re left alone as a 12-year-old, the more you start developing an awareness of how to prepare these items in a good way,” he said. “Noodles al dente, taken out at just the right moment. A crispy, rendered side of Spam. I remember that being a pivotal moment for me, when I engaged with food for the first time in a thoughtful way. When I realized that, hey, you can be thoughtful about how you’re cooking for yourself.”

Sin suggests the same for adults: Cut those scallions on the bias. Garnish that plate for yourself. If anything, it’s even more important that you pay attention to these details when it’s just you, yourself, and Spam. “My ideal meal,” he said, “on the rare occasion, before I started cooking seriously was Nissin Demae Iccho instant noodles from Hong Kong, some scrambled eggs, and a pan-seared slab of Spam.” The reason it works, he said, is the high gelatin content, not unlike what happens when you smash a burger. While you’re melting that gelatin, getting as much Maillard as you can, the pork crisps up and the salty-sweet flavor of the meat is brought out by that heat. “It’s the perfect product in that way,” he said.

Behind every slice of Spam is an American immigrant story. Photo by Jaime Sunwoo

A newfound sense of pride in Spam buoys this younger generation of cooks. For many in the Asian-American diaspora, openly loving the canned meat product means openly loving one’s culture, history, and skin, as well. There’s indelible comfort to be found in knowing that you’re not alone in this shared journey toward self-acceptance.

One of the richest aspects of Sunwoo’s Specially Processed workshops is the “Submit a Story” feature on her website, where participants can hive-mind their own Spam thoughts and recipes, and see their experiences live among a sea of others who have gone through similar things, especially as children of immigrants. In many ways, Spam is what the food critic Soleil Ho defines as assimilation food, or “food that’s made to close the gap between homes: a critical need when one lives in exile.”

As Choi told me at the start of my reporting, as we both headed into what would become the longest exile of our lives: Spam is the ultimate loner food.

Did you grow up with Spam? Let us know in the comments.

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Eric Kim is the Table for One columnist at Food52. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he is currently working on his first cookbook, to be published by Clarkson Potter in Spring 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at Saveur, Bon Appétit, and The New York Times and follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho. Born and raised in Georgia, Eric lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson.

111 Comments

Ironwood C. January 3, 2021
Fun fact: on the Hormel Foods (maker of SPAM) website, there is a letter from Chairman Khrushchev to the company thanking it for SPAM saving the Soviet troops during the siege of Leningrad.

 
chanks January 2, 2021
I was raised in a small mid-Missouri town in the 1950's and 60's where the culture was mostly German and Irish. Spam rated right up there with ham hocks & beans, neck bone & sauerkraut and pan-fried chicken. Who remembers cutting your finger on the sharp edges of the can that could only be opened with the little key that was attached to each can? I still love Spam and am thankful for the single serve packets available now. They're perfect!
 
HalfPint December 29, 2020
SAVED. Not just for the excellent article but the incredible stories and recipes (!) in the comments. Thank you, Eric, and Happy Holidays!
 
Donovan D. December 28, 2020
I admit it is not like eating a Porterhouse steak, but SPAM is in a class all by itself. Nothing can compare to it. YES, I am a a SPAM connoisseur.
 
Ruth December 28, 2020
Post WWII, my dad was overseas and my mom would cook Spam often. Along with SOS and Mrs. Grass's Noodle Soup, Spam makes me nostalgic about those days in wintry Chicago as a toddler. I didn't know it also brings happy memories for other cultures and backgrounds; this article makes me feel close to more of humanity so thank you!
 
Beanwean December 28, 2020
My husband's culture gave him Spamsilog, mine gave me fried Spam, canned biscuits, and syrup. Either way, we love our Spam, and don't care who knows it!
 
Nancy December 28, 2020
Great story! I'm a NYC jew and the oldest of 5 kids. Spam was a staple in our low income household. I don't remember eating it as I got older though. My husband is an immigrant from South America and Spam was something he loved eating on sandwiches and a snack. It's still a favorite treat in our house and reading about how it's used in actual meals with rice and such, is eye opening and something I need to try soon!
 
mshesseinsd December 27, 2020
As Covid-19 shutdowns started in March, I made my way to the grocery store across the street and managed to score the last two cans of hot and spicy Spam. A few days later, my sister asked if I had any requests as she geared up for a trip to Costco and a case of Spam was on my list. We split that case and then I had her pick up a second case just for me a couple months later. Based on what’s still left in the cupboard, I estimate we’ve eaten nine cans of Spam this year, almost double the amount I’ve allowed myself to eat out of fear of stigma in the past decade, reserving such indulgences for ‘cool’ musubi at food events or restaurants. Mostly, I thinly slice and pan fry and serve with white jasmine rice, freezer peas, sheets of roasted seaweed, and kimchee. We also tried a spam sandwich with pickles for the first time, which was satisfying, but not the same in terms of comfort food. Moral of my Spam story, when it seemed like the world as we knew it was ending, having a stockpile of Spam on hand somehow felt essential but now I appreciate it as cultural intuition.
 
Aditi J. December 27, 2020
This really resonated with me! I grew up in the U.K, my mum is from India and my dad is from Hong Kong. One of our happiest food memories was being on holiday in Italy and he cooked us Spam fried rice (I'm sure Italians will be horrified), but it instantly tasted like home. It has a big stigma here in Britain as well and is always thought of as gross but it reminds me of my dad's amazing cooking.
 
linhtnguyen December 27, 2020
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and now have an insatiable craving for Spam (although it's currently 2 AM and I'm already in bed). Spam for me is definitely nostalgic, I remember watching my mom fry up slices of it alongside eggs for breakfast/lunch/dinner with rice and soy sauce, or cubing it and tossing it into fried rice. But the most nostalgic thing about Spam for me from my middle school years up to early adulthood was sneaking a can out of the pantry in the middle of the night, cubing up the meat, not even frying or heating it, and just dunking the cubes in a mayo/ketchup mixture. My late night snack that I would eat whenever I was up late studying, when there was nothing else to really eat, and I didn't want to wake anyone up by making a ton of noise in the kitchen. My boyfriend and his family relate to Spam in a completely different way (I'm a first generation Vietnamese American, naturalized citizen after coming to this country as a refugee, and he is a born and bred American from small town PA). His mom refuses to eat it, saying it reminds her of her difficult childhood growing up. My boyfriend himself had a lot of misconceptions about it too, growing up with the idea that it was 'unnatural shelf-stable mystery meat' without ever actually consuming it. It took quite some time before I could convince him to eat it, but after seeing Spam musubi online, my boyfriend finally tasted it for the first time in his life last year. He's no longer averse to the idea of eating it, although he still makes fun of me for being so enthusiastic about it. As for his mom, I made some Spam fried rice a la my mom with frozen peas and corn one day while she was over at our home helping out with renovations, and she actually ate two full bowls of it (and said it was delicious!). I am not ashamed of my love for Spam, and I will continue to eat it with appreciation for my mom, who escaped her home country after the war, traveled through jungles while in constant fear of being discovered, and even had a child while living in a refugee camp in Thailand (me!) before being able to enter the United States, earn an associate's degree, get her citizenship, and achieve her own American dream.
 
430575ah December 23, 2020
When I was a kid we had SPAM dipped in batter and deep-fried. Aaah, manna from heaven. And what's wrong with the gelatine anyway? we used to spread it on toast and the best-behaved child got it as a reward.
Adrian
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 25, 2020
Shame the gelatin has since been magicked out. Goodbye, toast.
 
Jeffro December 23, 2020
When my dad took me fishing he always made his special fishing sandwiches. They were fried spam, pickle slices, onion, and mayonnaise. I liked them but they and the motion of the boat didn't. I discovered musubi a few years back and get occasional cravings for them. In my family it is known as "Specially Processed Animal Matter".
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 25, 2020
Love stories like these. Thanks for sharing.
 
DLanthrum December 23, 2020
Growing up in the 50's, my dad ran a meat market and grocery store. At the time, many, probably most processors, had their own brand. I think dad sold Spam, but our GO-TO was by Rath Packing Co. (Rath-Blackhawk hams, bacon, that was their "label" brand). Their canned "Spam-type" was, I believe simply called "Rath Canned Luncheon Meat". It was often a breakfast or lunch staple, as well as Fried Bologna. STILL love it!
 
Leks B. December 22, 2020
The Caribbean and Latin America are also big lovers of Spam I love it, however I cannot get my wife or my daughter to eat it. I imagine it's because they have never been hungry.
 
Yobochef December 22, 2020
Born and raised in Hawaii. Spam is a way of life. Spam, eggs and rice, of course. Musubi, saimin, fried rice, were spam ingredient staples for me. I get that about spam being a one person meal type ritual.. I portion out a can of spam, getting 6 ( I like them on the thick side so when you fry them hard, it’s juicy on the inside and crispy, black on the outside) and wrap them individually in plastic wrap, put in a baggie and freeze.. ten minute thaw time for a quick breakfast, soup, musubi.. oh.. it doesn’t have to be with rice. 😂 “spiced ham” SPAM. Integral part of a “locals” life.
 
Yobochef December 22, 2020
Born and raised in Hawaii. Spam is a way of life. Spam, eggs and rice, of course. Musubi, saimin, fried rice, were spam ingredient staples for me. I get that about spam being a one person meal type ritual.. I portion out a can of spam, getting 6 ( I like them on the thick side so when you fry them hard, it’s juicy on the inside and crispy, black on the outside) and wrap them individually in plastic wrap, put in a baggie and freeze.. ten minute thaw time for a quick breakfast, soup, musubi.. oh.. it doesn’t have to be with rice. 😂
 
Steve December 21, 2020
I grew up in Austin, MN and my dad worked for Hormel Foods for 44 years. My great grandfather was one of the first employees hired by George A, Hormel. My dad worked in the Mechanical Division and one of his main duties was the repair and maintenance of the Spam machines. He loved his job and his company. Although he had retired by the time of the bad strike, the whole affair destroyed his feelings and commitment to this formerly paternalistic company. He never lost he love off Austin.
I am still proud to say I grew up in Spamtown.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 25, 2020
What a legacy. Thanks for sharing, Steve.
 
mizerychik December 21, 2020
I didn't grow up eating Spam regularly, but I did grow up eating Taylor Ham, which is a pretty similar product other than being shelf stable. The spices, the undeniably sweet fried flavors, the way it's tied to home cooking, it brings back memories of comfort food as a child.
 
MAry B. December 21, 2020
My Aunt, Dorothy Horn, who lived in Guam and passed away in 2016 at the age of 91 was considered the Queen of Spam. She was a local food critic on the island and wrote several cookbooks on Spam, one being "Great Classic Spam Recipes of the World"! She was a treasure! You can find it on Amazon.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 25, 2020
Amazing. Thank you, Mary, for telling us about your wonderful aunt.
 
H M. December 21, 2020
One can of spam is the beginning of many meals. Dice up a slice for fried rice; slice thin and fill a grilled cheese sandwich; cook in a little shoyu/mirin with leftover vegetable and beaten egg for a quick rice bowl. Oh, the possibilities!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. December 25, 2020
So many possibilities.