The Lonely Legacy of Spam
December 23, 2020 5:50 AM   Subscribe

"...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." Eric Kim, writing for Food52. posted by DirtyOldTown (45 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
As a 1st generation Filipino-American, spam, Vienna sausage, and red hotdogs remain foods I will gladly eat, as much the same as corn dogs, tater tots, and breakfast sausages.

New discovery during COVID: air-fried spam. So good.
posted by linux at 7:00 AM on December 23, 2020 [11 favorites]

My ex-father-in-law lived almost his entire 96 year life in Hawaii. We used to travel from NYC to HI about every 9 months to see him, and like most people I was amazed at the amount of Spam and Vienna Sausage everyone seemed to be eating. I finally asked the xFIL's best friend - a foodie and an excellent cook - about it, and he explained to me that under martial law and food rationing in HI during WWII Spam and other foods like it were really the only thing you could get.
posted by nevercalm at 7:27 AM on December 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

Eric Kim is a delight, a terrific writer with the uncanny ability to write about food in a way that connects cuisine with culture (whether it be as a participant or an observer), family life, and a person's interior life.

Every time I see Eric Kim's byline, I know I am about to get a little gift.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:42 AM on December 23, 2020 [5 favorites]

In high school, we were served spam regularly. Not too bad. But then my brother moved to the North Shore (Oahu). So, yeah, spam - so good. Spam instead of ham on the Hawaiian pizza at D’Amicos on the Kam Hwy after a session at Sunset. And also especially with shaved ice. Azuki beans at the bottom of the shaved ice cone were also a delight. So different from the local raspas in San Antonio.

So count me as a fan.
posted by sudogeek at 7:58 AM on December 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

my dad, neither Asian nor American, liked to keep some Spam on the shelf all his life. A little prodding revealed that it went back to World War Two, the German-Dutch border, the long winter of 1944-45. You sleep most of your nights, eat most of your meals in what amounts to a trench -- you come to appreciate the little things and one of them was a kind of canned meat that had a little phosphorous compartment at the bottom. You'd break the seal, the phosphorous would burn, the meat would heat up. Voila! A warm meal on a cold, cold night.

Apparently, the best of it tasted like Spam.
posted by philip-random at 8:05 AM on December 23, 2020 [14 favorites]

On the other hand, an Iowa boy who spent WWII in the Pacific with the Marines got enough Spam in 3 years to make him hate the stuff for the next 60 years until the day he died.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 8:29 AM on December 23, 2020 [8 favorites]

SpamShop has: golf bags and golf balls, apron kits, trivets, slicers (several styles), musubi molds, fly swatters, sandwich keepers, canjo instrument, and selfie sticks with the Spam Museum logo. Every type of apparel and magnet you could want. Skateboards and plush toys.
They still have the "Spammy" plastic piggie bank, it's in the toy section!
posted by winesong at 8:31 AM on December 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh and all the dazzling varieties of Spam, including Spam singles!
posted by winesong at 8:32 AM on December 23, 2020

Exploring the Midwestern cultural affection for port wine cheese (writing for Saveur)

Oh yes. Kansas City raised, here, and December Sunday afternoons mean crackers, summer sausage, and either port wine cheese spread, or a cheese ball with walnuts, or that smoked cheddar from Hickory Farms that used to come in a ceramic crock.
posted by dnash at 8:41 AM on December 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

From my Midwestern childhood. Run a can of spam through a meat grinder. Chop up an onion. Grate a bunch of velveeta cheese. Mix it all together. Put appropriate amount on open face hamburger buns. Broil. My food memory brain remembers this as delicious.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:46 AM on December 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

Having had the last of a batch of homemade musubi last night, I appreciate this piece. It's not my history directly, but having grown up with a Hawaiian aunt adjacent, a love for musubi (often served with strawberry daiquiri, just the mix for us kids, for reasons) is something I carry forward with me. Always fried up with a home-canned recipe for 'hot bean oil' as we always called it.

I remember being overjoyed when I was entrusted/gifted a musubi mold from the islands after one of her trips back, in the days before you could just pop on Amazon and find such things just a mailbox away.

There's a lot of little details I'm relearning, going through the steps myself with an adult's eye. How moist to leave the rice, when to introduce sugar to the marinade-turned-glaze so the pan isn't left a charred sticky mess, when to use a mandolin vs. a knife to slice the spam (Getting a dedicated spam-slicer is a bit far yet for me, unitasker-wise)...

Similarly, breaking out those last jars preserved by long-passed family & circumstances also calls to my experience. I'm down to a couple jars of salsa from the old family farm, I think one or two left of the aforementioned bean oil, some freezer jam I can't fully bring myself to finish...
posted by CrystalDave at 8:49 AM on December 23, 2020 [7 favorites]

This article and thread have made me hungry for spam now. And growing up in a middle class household in Georgia in the 1970s I was imprinted with the notion that port wine cheese in any form was a fancy snack brought out for guests. Vienna sausages on the other hand were my preferred food to eat on saltines while fishing with my father, whose favorite was canned sardines. Preferably in mustard or hot sauce. We ate lots of things that might be looked down upon by some but that bring me fond memories.
posted by TedW at 9:32 AM on December 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

Haole from Hawai'i here: Spam, Vienna sausage, and bright rad Redondo's hot dogs — and let me add that corned beef in a can. Our local Costco gets it, they shelf the Spam and Vienna sausage together. We're living on the Mainland now, but we've taught our daughter the Spam love — Spam fried rice, grilled Spam-and-cheese sandwiches. She'll sometimes make herself fried Spam on rice (with maybe some canned chili on it) as a sort of quickie dorm loco moco.
posted by kikaider01 at 10:01 AM on December 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

A Spam-fried egg-American cheese breakfast sandwich is one of my favorites. I've got a tin of Spam in my cupboard right now just waiting to be used for that. Real Hormel Spam (as opposed to a couple of knock-off competitor products) has been in short supply in our supermarket during the pandemic, so when it was on the shelf last week, I made sure to snag some.

Did not know that Hawaii has red hot dogs, I thought they were strictly a Maine thing.
posted by briank at 10:38 AM on December 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Spam is the opposable thumb of the canned meat world, it grabs onto all the other flavors and amplifies them, uses them as tools to bring your mouth joy. With a bit of crunchy garlic chili oil and kimchi it makes my lame fried rice into something magical.
posted by th3ph17 at 10:54 AM on December 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

From the linked Food52 article on Spam:
"It’s a food that many Americans associate with hardship, poverty, and army rations"

I think this was how my father perceived Spam. Spam was completely absent from our household growing up. I never saw it on my aunts' (his sisters) tables, either. I think for him Spam was too linked with the hardships and trauma he went through during the Korean War and the immediate post-war years. Growing up in Korea and other places, Spam or any dishes using Spam were absent from our family table, nor ever mentioned. Basically I only learned of Spam and its reputation as an adult - I was well into my thirties before I first tried Budae Jjigae (Army Base Stew).

My father rarely spoke of those years, and my mother told me his memories of those times were too painful for him to speak about, and he avoided reminders of those years.

So for me, reading fond remembrances of Spam, from Korean Americans in particular, is somewhat bittersweet. It is a reminder of home and my father, but for different reasons.
posted by needled at 11:43 AM on December 23, 2020 [7 favorites]

Did not know that Hawaii has red hot dogs, I thought they were strictly a Maine thing.

Definitely not a Maine thing. I buy our red hot dogs at the grocery store from an Oklahoma company that has been around forever. Things like hot dogs can be very regional. I would encourage everyone to look at local opportunities for their hot dog purchases. I guess maybe this comment make me a hipster. Oh well.
posted by Quonab at 12:37 PM on December 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Growing up with parents from HK, we'd have luncheon meat from various origins instead of SPAM! brand luncheon meat.

I recall that Argentine or Brazilian origin was the best in terms of taste and quality. I personally preferred tinned "corned beef" with more coarser-grained chunks mixed with the mechanically separated meat.

Don't have it too often, but if I see something from Argentine or Brazil, I'll grab a can or two for fried meat and egg English muffins.
posted by porpoise at 12:49 PM on December 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

my father, son of non-asian immigrants and youngest of depression-era children, always has liked spam (and canned corned beef hash), or chosen to eat it. we had many a spam meal as kids, without it attaining nostalgic, homey cachet in my reminiscence. it is not on my shelves, but should be in light of all the fried rice i make out of leftovers. also i should learn to make kimchi.

but i lived in korea for a while, and was taken out to a fancy dinner downtown (inch'on, before the renovations; a different friend took me to seoul on another occasion for a special breakfast of hangover tripe soup) by some friends who were excited to share some delicacy with me and some compatriots. they were too young to have lived through the war, but that delicacy was, to the best of my later identification, budae jjigae. i think the fancy version we enjoyed also had cut-up hot dogs in it. the hosts were non-plussed by their guests' evident confusion at the presentation, but it was very good. later some people old enough to have lived through the war explained the provenance and context.
posted by 20 year lurk at 1:02 PM on December 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Pork is tasty. Even the unmentionable bits ground up into sausage and spreads is usually tasty. Like, even the Mexican chorizo made entirely of salivary glands that I once accidentally got instead of the spanish version... it still tasted pretty good in my kale and pasta dish.
posted by tavella at 1:42 PM on December 23, 2020

also in NASCAR
posted by philip-random at 1:54 PM on December 23, 2020

When I was a kid in the southern US in the 80s, it was a rare family indeed that didn't have any cans of Spam or vienna sausages in the house. It wasn't quite a staple like cream of mushroom soup or pork and beans, but they were very common.
posted by wierdo at 4:07 PM on December 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

My son's girlfriend is from Hawaii and last year she shared many of the unique Hawaiian foods. Fried spam was one of them. The recipe is Spam Musubi and I have to say it was one of the more interesting cuisine mashups I've ever eaten. Apparently it was a favorite of Anthony Bourdain.
posted by bluesky43 at 4:09 PM on December 23, 2020

My father was in an African charity thing in the late 1950s. As a kid in the 1970s I went to a reunion of his colleagues that was a potluck dinner. One of them brought a whole village built out of Spam, because that was all they ever ate while there. It was tasty (for us kids; the adults avoided it like it was toxic).
posted by chavenet at 4:15 PM on December 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

I grew up on an Ontarian farm where we raised most of our own meat, and all my Spam memories are of pop culture references towards it, not of actually eating it.

Does anyone remember the "Private Charles Lamb" episode of M*A*S*H? My mother cracked right up when Hawkeye appeared bearing a platter with a moulded lamb-like figure on it (seriously, the picture of the lamb platter that is on the page I've linked to is well worth a look), and told Henry Blake it was a "Spam lamb". I asked my mother what Spam was. She said, "It's a kind of canned meat, and it's horrible. I bought it once and none of you would eat it."

I used to read Enid Blyton's Famous Five series as a kid, and the characters in that were forever eating "potted meat". I didn't know what potted meat was, but with my farm girl upbringing I thought it might be some sort of home preserved meat, and I expected that it would consequently be something as tasty as home preserved food usually is. I used to envy the characters their potted meat meals. It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I saw an online comment from another North American who had read the Famous Five books as a kid and not known what potted meat was, and in the comment she said she had recently found out that potted meat was Spam. I laughed until tears streamed down my face at the realization that I'd spent my childhood drooling over the thought of a food that was actually awful.
posted by orange swan at 4:18 PM on December 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

I laughed until tears streamed down my face at the realization that I'd spent my childhood drooling over the thought of a food that was actually awful.

Wow, way to read the room.
posted by I paid money to offer this... insight? at 5:37 PM on December 23, 2020 [9 favorites]

My poor eyesight once again played a trick on my brain and I read "Spam" as "Spain" in both the title and body of the post. For a minute I was really confused. I wasn't aware that Asian-Americans would really think much about Spain, let alone giving it "the ability to transport you home wherever you are in the world."

I had some Spam as a kid (most of the time we were in Japan, so it was mainly when we came back to the States for a couple of months every few years). Didn't hate it, but it wasn't a favorite either. I don't think the Spam army invaded Japan like it did elsewhere; I don't remember Spam as anything the Japanese ate regularly but I could be wrong.
posted by deadcowdan at 5:39 PM on December 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'll still occasionally have Spam in an omelet, but I haven't had port wine cheese spread in an age; I may get some tomorrow as a Christmas Eve treat. Get you some of that and maybe some canned oysters and just about any cracker that isn't a saltine and you have yourself some fancy 70s adult party leftovers. Get some 7-Up and make a Shirley Temple with leftover maraschino cherry juice for the complete effect.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:54 PM on December 23, 2020

My WW2 and Korea veteran father encountered spam frequently during his 20 year military career, which included tours in Hawaii and several other Pacific islands. He liked it, and we always had it growing up-- like two or three times a month, most often with ramen, which in those days (60s and 70s) wasn't called ramen yet, but "saimin", at least in our family.

Going to the Spam Museum in Austin Minnesota, I saw Dwight D. Eisenhower's letter of "endorsement" for SPAM, which is definitely damning with faint praise. Then in this thread I read of many of my other fellow American's who are also like Ike (as far as hating SPAM) and again for the thousandth time in 2020 I am ashamed of the people of the United States.

It doesn't matter if your family, like mine, has strong ties to Hawaii and Saipan and Guam-- SPAM is delicious, and I feel sorry for you if your parents didn't like it or thought it was for foreigners or poor people or didn't know how to cook it (hint, it needs to have a crispy carmelized edge).

Eric Kim, not all Americans dislike SPAM. I stand with you. Also, people like what they like, and if they don't like SPAM, then that means there's more for me.
posted by seasparrow at 7:10 PM on December 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

My (step-)grandmother would always have homemade Chex Mix around the house for the holidays. When she passed, there was still some left from the recent prior Christmas. It was duly divvied up and parceled out to those who wanted one last taste. I ate my share and thought of her.
posted by notoriety public at 7:19 PM on December 23, 2020 [5 favorites]

Yep, Spam, Vienna sausages and potted meat. I grew up with those things. That photo I saw in the article of Bettina Makalintal's brekkie looked delicious to me! I grew up in my African-American family eating meals like that (except we scrambled the eggs, cooked rice and Spam together).

At any given time, I'll have a can of Spam on the shelf. I like it.
posted by droplet at 7:38 PM on December 23, 2020

"It’s a food that many Americans associate with hardship, poverty, and army rations"

That was my lived experience. It was eat the spam or don't eat (well actually, it was eat the spam or suffer the consequences, you can guess what that meant). Also on that list was chipped dried beef (served creamed), tuna casserole, and the one I liked, called American Chop Suey by Mom, was a casserole with layers of ground beef, egg noodles, and cheese in a sauce made with tomato juice. I'd complain, except we always had 3 meals, and my folks did the best they could.
posted by evilDoug at 8:08 PM on December 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

No love for Treet here?
posted by Marky at 9:52 PM on December 23, 2020

Early 90s mainland China me didn't have Spam exposure, but I really did like these super-processed sausages. They were packaged in a red plastic casing that you could snap off and eat on the go. I can't remember anything else about them aside from that it was probably the one thing I missed after moving to the US.

Funny enough, my most recent intersection of Spam and Asian Americans was a bunch of Taiwanese kids taking me crabbing, and we bought a ton of chicken drumsticks and Spam as bait. Kind of wasteful, if I'm honest.
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:47 AM on December 24, 2020

Spam is not just for Koreans or Hawaiians, when I grew up in Canada we had Monty Python's excellent song that made me want it. My parents thought it was cheap and crappy, but for me it was a special treat that once in a while I could force my mom to buy for me.

My Central Asian wife hates it. But I have taught my youngest son the SPAM song and now he knows it is good, too.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:05 AM on December 24, 2020

Spam is something I buy maybe once a decade or so because something about it sounds tasty to me (and seasparrow, reading your description of making it with crispy caramelized edges makes me want to try it again). So far I've never really succeeded in preparing it in a way that I've enjoyed, but I've always chalked that up to a failure on my part rather than any inadequacy on the part of the Spam itself.

On the other hand, my family has this very 70s-esque recipe for "chicken ball" that uses a can of Underwood Chicken Spread, a product that generally lives next to the Vienna sausages and Spam in the grocery store. I've brought it to parties, introduced it to my wife and her side of the family, and the reaction is always the same: first, polite smiles and/or wrinkled noses as I describe what's in it, followed by the whole danged thing disappearing so I never get any that I can take home and enjoy on my own. It is so much better than it seems like it should be and I will always be here to spread the word of the wonders of Underwood Chicken.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:51 AM on December 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

DingoMutt, I'm intrigued. Would you mind sharing that chicken ball recipe? I like making Amy Sedaris's Li'l Smoky Cheese Ball to take to parties and yours sounds like it would be a fun--and tasty--accompaniment.
posted by indexy at 8:38 AM on December 24, 2020

DingoMutt, I'm intrigued. Would you mind sharing that chicken ball recipe?

You got it! I think it would definitely pair well with that cheese ball (I'm going to have to try that one sometime, too!). It's pretty simple:
1 can of Underwood Chicken Spread
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 T mayonnaise
1/2 tsp. soy sauce (or more to taste)
1/4 tsp. salt (sometimes I omit this and go with more soy sauce)
2-3 T. dried chives

Mix it up with a hand mixer (or whatever), then stick it in the fridge to set up (I usually give it 4-8 hours, depending on what else I'm doing). Meanwhile, toast 3-4 T. sesame seeds and let them cool. Once the mixture has firmed up, spread the sesame seeds down on a piece of plastic wrap, tin foil, or whatever, then shape the mixture into a ball, roll it in the seeds, and wrap it up in the plastic wrap. Stick it in the fridge until you're ready to eat it - I like it with plain Triscuits or sesame water biscuits when I'm not just eating it off a spoon like a monster. Hope you like it if you try it!

(I'll also add that sometimes when I make it, it ends up a little too saucy to form into a ball because I'm mostly eyeballing ingredients at this point and might end up with a bit too much mayo or something. If that happens, don't worry - it's also tasty if you just mix in the sesame seeds and pretend you were planning on making dip all along)
posted by DingoMutt at 8:59 AM on December 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

Spam is meh to me but I so do appreciate other's connections to it, often through childhood reminiscences. I have to remind myself I never care for the stuff, regardless of presentation.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 9:07 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've never had spam but assume I'd like it since I enjoy the slightly-less-maligned scrapple, and pork roll, which may not even exist outside of the Trenton to Philadelphia region.
posted by sepviva at 2:23 PM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Salty canned protein + hot white rice + pickled things is my go-to when I can't be bothered to cook. Spam is a fave, also corned beef, or fish. I love it.
posted by emeiji at 2:56 PM on December 24, 2020

I vaguely remember eating spam as a kid growing up in the 80s. To my best recollection, the spam was breaded and fried and then served in some sort of cream of X soup with frozen peas.

When I first moved to Korea in 2005ish, I remember seeing the huge gift packages of spam in the store and couldn't figure out what the hell was up with that. A bit of Googling and I found out the relationship with the War.

Now I kinda want to go get a can of spam and dice it up in scrambled eggs. Hell, one of my favorite breakfasts was fried bologna and scrambled eggs.
posted by kathrynm at 2:56 PM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

At home everything was made from scratch, with almost no processed foods. So for me spam was a rare treat that I'd get only at friends' houses (both immigrant and non). I buy it once in a while as a treat, and all the dishes described in the article sound good to me.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:58 PM on December 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

I may have to try cooking Spam in a waffle iron.
posted by indexy at 8:31 AM on December 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

spam was a rare treat that I'd get only at friends' houses (both immigrant and non).

Yes! My family would sometimes get stuff like bologna but not the processed tinned meats and I LOVED them. There's a long-running family diner up here in Vermont that had a "Hawaiian Week" which was unusual for them but I appreciated their attempt to try to do something besides basic Italian-American fare. I got some sort of barbecued and sweet and sour Spam, served over rice with grilled pineapple and it was DELICIOUS and unusual enough (in this setting) that people were looking over at my plate "You ordered the SPAM?" I still think about it. I hope they have Hawaiian Week again. Thanks for this post.
posted by jessamyn at 9:14 AM on December 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

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