This post, by Evelyn Kim, guest curator for our day-long Eating Through Time Festival, is one of several posts leading up to the October 17, 2015 celebration of food, cookery, and health. View the full program and register for the Festival.
For millions of Asians and Pacific Islanders, Spam makes the world go ‘round. Seemingly inconsistent with local food cultures, Spam has seeped itself into regional cuisines, including Hawaii’s Spam musubi, South Korea’s Spam jjigae, and Hong Kong’s Spam ramen. In China, Spam is considered a gourmet treat, with Spam gift boxes appearing for Chinese New Year.
How did this piece of tinned meat earn so many frequent flyer miles? The answer lies in the history of Spam. Hormel, the meat processor and eventual food giant, originally developed Spam as a means to commercialize pork shoulder, an unwanted cut at the time, in 1937.1 Originally marketed as a home alternative to butcher-sliced luncheon meat, Spam’s worldwide debut came with the United States’ entry into World War II. While spurned by American housewives, Spam was perfect for US military rations: it was shelf-stable, compact, and a cheap source of protein. And it wasn’t just for the US military. Thanks to the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, Spam was the star food aid product for Allied countries and troops, finding its way across the United Kingdom, France, and even Russia. By the end of the war, the US government had bought nearly 150 million pounds of Spam.2
The same story repeated itself in Asia, but with a twist. US troops also brought Spam with them there. But unlike European countries, where Spam’s utility and popularity waned after the war, the product remained popular in Asia and the Pacific Islands. In many places, including Hong Kong and Japan, Spam was the only meat available immediately after WWII. In the case of Korea, the Korean War insured a steady supply of Spam to the peninsula, even becoming local currency for troops and the civilian population for everything from dental care to building supplies to tactical information.3
But the question remains as to why Spam stayed so popular in Asia as opposed to Europe. Europe did not embrace Spam after the war for a number of reasons. While post-war Europe had the same problems with hunger as post-War Asia, Europe reverted to pre-war agricultural production relatively quickly. The other possibility is that the association of Spam with wartime poverty and starvation led to a backlash against the product. This was certainly the case in America. For the troops coming home, the mere mention of Spam sent them into paroxysms of disgust.
While many of the circumstances in Asia were fairly similar in the post-war era, geography and politics may explain Spam’s continued proliferation in the region. With the exception of China, all areas in which Spam was introduced during WWII have limited land for agricultural use, making meat a scarce commodity, even in the best of times.4 Compared to the price of locally produced fresh meat, Spam was relatively cheap, even after the war. For Hawaii, political conditions allowed Spam to dominate the market. Hawaii had a large population of Japanese residents during WWII. Instead of interning them like on the US mainland, the US government resorted to restricting Japanese-American dominated industries, such as fishing. Without a steady supply of locally available protein, Spam easily dominated the Hawaiian market.5
One other major factor explains Spam’s ubiquity across Asia: marketing. Hormel, like many other industries post-war, had to re-market itself. Hormel attempted to re-brand Spam as the food for the modern 1950s housewife. Unfortunately for Hormel, this effort didn’t revive Spam’s sales in North America. However, Hormel’s re-branding efforts were quite successful in Asia. Across the continent, Spam can be found in gift packs for any occasion. Furthermore, Hormel not only has added different varieties to please local markets, but in some places, like China, it has reformulated the recipe.
Spam is now available in 44 countries across the world. Hormel, in some ways, became the case study for food multi-nationals in how to introduce new food product to a global audience. Spam may have lost its battle with the American housewife, but it certainly has won the war across the globe.
1. Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Ed. Andrew Smith. (New York: Oxford UP), 2007.p. 559.
2. Yoon H. Spam: More than Junk Mail or Junk Meat. NPR. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11714236. Published July 4, 2007. Accessed October 8, 2015. See also endnote 1.
4. As a side note, the popularity of pork across all Asian nations is also due to a combination of poverty and land scarcity. Pigs have a low feed conversion ratio and have a higher meat yield compared to other livestock. Sigrid Schmalzer, in her fantastic article, Breeding a Better China: Pigs, Practices, and Place in a Chinese County, 1929-1937 (Geographical Review, Vol. 92, No. 1. Jan, 2002. Pp 1-22.) discusses the importance of pigs to the Chinese diet.
5. In her book, The Food of Paradise: Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage (University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), Rachel Laudan has a full discussion of Spam’s role in Hawaii.