The other night I was talking, over an ale or two, naturally, to a friend who has just returned from a holiday in Hawaii. He was explaining how popular Spam seems to be over there and how this strange and frankly horrible product is now being made in assorted ‘gourmet’ flavours. Somebody decided that Chorizo flavoured Spam was a good idea and others seemed willing to accept this strange decision and actually eat it. Not only that, but he even saw macadamia nuts, (Which Hawaii produces in vast and delicious quantities) available in Spam Flavour.
This revelation produced a horrible moment of shared disgust among the assembled company and we all took that half gulp, half deep breath that all humans do when faced with something too vile to contemplate. Spam is not something that any of us present had eaten in decades. As a foodstuff it rates only very slightly above pet food in most people’s perception.
I first met Spam at the age of four. I went to a very good primary school and I can think of half a dozen friends and relations that went there too and I am sure they will remember this as vividly as I do. The school took its teaching responsibilities seriously and while it went to great lengths to show us kids that the world could be full of colour, fun, music, games and shouting for joy, they also took similar care to demonstrate to us that the world could also be a bleak and joyless place in which sadness, adversity and gloom had to be met head on and accepted. This they did using Spam.
At least once every two weeks we would troop hungrily into the hall for lunch and be faced with the horror of Spam. It was clearly taken from some huge catering pack and served in perfectly round slices along with the scraps of greenery that passed for salad in 60’s Britain. It was, quite simply, inedible. It was a depressing synthetic pink in colour, smelled of chemicals and tasted of sadness. We’d sit and cut faces or shapes into it, putting off the horrible moment when we would have no choice but to eat it. And eat it we would, since this was post war Britain. Rationing had only, finally, been abandoned less than a decade before and the country still ran on the ‘Food-is-Fuel’ mentality and you were still meant to be pathetically grateful for anything not actually poisonous.
“You’ll eat it and like it!” “That’s good food! You can’t let it go to waste!” “There are starving children in India!”, and of course the terrible; “No pudding until you’ve eaten your MEAT!”
Once I left primary school they found other ways of showing us how crap life could be such as compulsory rugby and beatings and I was never again to eat Spam. In fact I had almost forgotten that it still existed until Monty Python suddenly gave it a boost in their unforgettable ‘Spam Sketch’. The hilarious spectacle of Terry Jones as the proprietor of some gloomy café, reeling off the endless list of meals containing more and more improbable quantities of Spam while a table full of Vikings in the corner broke into song about the stuff suddenly made it seem at least funny.
Almost iconic in fact. Though neither funny nor iconic enough to make me want to eat it again. Indeed, during my impoverished and drunken younger days I ate many revolting things, especially late at night. I’ve even eaten saveloys and doner kebabs (and kept them down too) but I have never been hungry or degraded enough to have touched Spam.
(Just an aside here. My research on the internet into Spam reveals that the famous Python sketch led to the name Spam being applied to unwanted email, though who first decided this is unclear.)
Many countries boast revolting foodstuffs. Scotland has Haggis, which, despite its seemingly disgusting provenance is actually delicious. In Iceland they eat rotted shark which people have weed on. Yet these ‘delicacies’ are presented with swagger and a knowing grin. There’s something defiantly fun about them. But Spam makes no such claims. It is simply nasty, cheap canned ‘meat-style’ food substitute, cheaply packaged and without flair of any kind.
So where could it have come from? Personally, I was AMAZED to find my own country guiltless. I had always simply assumed that anything so deliberately joyless could only have been developed in Britain. But no. Spam is as American as apple pie and school shootings. It was invented by the Hormel Foods Corporation in 1937, and while its brand name is taken to mean ‘Spiced Ham’, it appears that the name actually means something else which they don’t want to tell us and I don’t want to think about.
The American do produce a lot of CRAP food. But, no matter how squashy, fake, horrible and unhealthy these foods may be, our American cousins usually manage to package and advertise them as if they were wholesome, nutritious and fun. The Big Mac is the ultimate example of this on the worldwide scale though a visit to an American supermarket will turn up foods even more unlikely and appalling. Yet even the worst of these will be presented in bright and irresistible packs, hinting at untold gastronomic delight.
Not Spam though. Oh dear no. Spam is, for all its horror, presented in dull and honest tins that promise nothing save for disappointment and self-loathing. Spam is the ultimate anti-fun food.
Yet it is still made, and, we must assume, sold. A look at the tinned meat shelves here at our local supermarket shows that Hormel’s Spam occupies a standard one metre shelf and is available in standard ‘Inedible’, ‘Inedible Low Sodium’, ‘Bacon’ and ‘Turkey’ flavours. Yet just a few feet away lie the inexpressible delights of a New Zealand meat chiller, containing meats of a quality unheard of in many countries. Ten dollars will get you a rump steak so tender you’d think it came from a cow tended by angels, pork chops so rich and flavourful they look like they’ll cook themselves for you, and of course the best lamb available anywhere on Earth. Yet enough people are prepared to bypass these fresh meats and buy Spam instead. It defies belief.
Over the last couple of days I have asked pretty much everyone I’ve encountered if they have eaten Spam recently. None of them have, which came as no surprise. But every single one of them reacted as if I’d asked them if they’d eaten dog roll. Or drunk from a puddle. But then the kind of people I know tend, like me, to be serious about food. So I decided to sit down, write about my curiosity and see if anyone else feels like saying, as Eric Idle’s character did in that sketch; “I LOVE SPAM!”
Who still eats it? Do you have favourite recipes for it? What is it that draws you to its jellified and synthetic delights? Do you feed it to children? (And if so, what did your children do to deserve this?) Answers below please. I’ll even waive my normal refusal to allow replies from anonymous responders in this case. I can see why you’d want to keep this habit a secret.