Spam, Lovely Spam! Mystery Meat Celebrates 80th Spam-iversary

Spam. You know you want it. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The beginning of July ushers in an important anniversary. No, not the date when the U.S. declared its independence from the British Empire, but the day immediately after: July 5. On that day in 1937, the American culinary landscape experienced the arrival of the canned luncheon meat known as Spam.

Invented by the Hormel Foods Corporation, the ready-to-eat pork product's long shelf life, practicality and versatility quickly earned it both praise and scorn, and kept people coming back for more. Spam was widely used by the U.S. Army, with over 100 million pounds (45 million kilograms) shipped overseas to feed Allied troops during World War II, according to a timeline on the Spam website.

And now, 80 years later, Spam and its signature blue can are still going strong. To date, more than 8 billion cans of Spam have been sold worldwide; its packaging was donated to the Smithsonian Institution; and the product's name has become synonymous with unsolicited junk email. Love it or hate it, Spam must be doing something right to maintain its popularity (or notoriety) for nearly a century. [10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits]

What exactly is Spam? When pried from its rectangular tin, the so-called "classic" recipe Spam is a pliable, glistening, mottled pink block that contains six ingredients, which are listed on the Spam website: pork blended with ham, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and the preservative sodium nitrite. The food's trademark salty taste is "kinda like ham," but also resembles pork roast "a little,"the website reported.

Over the years, new varieties of Spam with special flavors joined the "kinda like ham" version on supermarket shelves. There are now 15 types of Spam, containing dashes of garlic, black pepper, jalapeño or teriyaki seasoning, to name a few of the flavor additions. Hormel even offers a low-sodium option, introduced in 1986.

A wartime staple

But when Spam launched, it didn't need special flavors to attract attention. Cheap meat that could be cooked or eaten right out of the can and could safely sit on a shelf for months on end was a novelty that appealed to consumers looking to stretch their grocery budgets during World War II and in the decades that followed, the New York Times reported in 2008.

A recipe photo from the 1950s or 1960s shows a pie made with Spam, potatoes, scallions, and evaporated milk. (Image credit: Tom Kelley/Getty)

American soldiers who served during World War II recall a complicated relationship with the salty, fatty luncheon meat. On one hand, it was a plentiful source of protein, particularly at the front lines, where meat was hard to come by. On the other hand, Spam in the army chow line was perhaps a bit too plentiful, served at meal after meal until soldiers could hardly stand to look at it, author Carolyn Wyman wrote in "The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink" (Oxford University Press, 2007), in an entry adapted from her book "Spam: A Biography: The Amazing True Story of America’s Miracle Meat" (Harvest/Harcourt, 1999). 

Letters from U.S. soldiers sent to Hormel and to military newspapers at the time described Spam as "meat loaf without basic training," "ham that didn't pass its physical" and "the real reason war was hell," Wyman wrote. President Dwight D. Eisenhower later confirmed that he shared these sentiments, in a letter he wrote to Hormel in 1966.

''I ate my share of Spam along with millions of other soldiers. I'll even confess to a few unkind remarks about it,'' Eisenhower wrote. ''As former commander in chief, I believe I can still forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it,'' he concluded.

After World War II, Spam remained a go-to staple for low-cost and versatile meals in the U.S., and people living in the Pacific Islands incorporated Spam into their diets after U.S. soldiers stationed there during the war had introduced the food, according to Wyman. In present-day Hawaii, slices of Spam are commonly served fried atop rice as a type of sushi called musubi, and Spam is used in many dishes across Guam and the Philippines, Wyman wrote.

Spam later found a similar path to Korea during the 1950s, when U.S. soldiers brought the food with them during the Korean War. It remains hugely popular there today as a luxury treat, even appearing in fancy gift baskets, NPR reported in 2015. [7 Perfect Survival Foods]

"Spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam"

In 1970, Spam entered pop culture infamy via a BBC television skit performed by the British comedy group Monty Python. In a grimy café serving only dishes with Spam in them, a chorus of Vikings enthusiastically chants, "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam," as an exasperated pair of customers tries to place their order.

That skit, with its annoyingly repetitive "Spam" chanting drowning out all other conversation, inspired early adopters of the internet to label unwanted electronic messages as "spam," Time Magazine reported in 2009.

Today, Spam's appeal shows no signs of waning; about 12.8 cans of Spam products are consumed worldwide every second, according to the product website. In Hawaii alone, people eat approximately 7 million cans of Spam each year, and their annual Spam festival, Waikiki Spam Jam, attracts an estimated 25,000 people, according to the festival website.

Located in Austin, Minnesota, the Spam Museum is a 14,000-square-foot space celebrating the popular canned meat. (Image credit: Hormel Foods Corporation)

Die-hard Spam fans can even appease their insatiable hunger for all things Spam at the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, which opened in 2016 and follows two predecessor museums founded in 1991 and 2001, respectively. At the museum, visitors can explore collections of Spam memorabilia, as well as photographs and exhibits documenting Spam's history and culinary impact around the world, Hormel representatives said in a statement.   

But even after 80 years have passed, one lingering question about Spam remains unanswered: the origins of its name. Since its earliest days, Spam's moniker has been the subject of much speculation. A common interpretation is that the name is a contraction of "spiced ham," Hormel representatives suggested in a Spam FAQ. However, they neither confirmed nor denied whether that rumor was true.

"The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives. And probably Nostradamus," they said.

Original article on Live Science.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct the author of the Spam entry in the book "The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink," which is Carolyn Wyman not Andrew Smith.

Mindy Weisberger

Mindy Weisberger is a Live Science editor for the channels Animals and Planet Earth. She also reports on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.