Spam has been around since before the Second World War (1937 to be exact), but it spiked in popularity as the nation rationed meats to support the war effort at home. This popular pork also became the ideal food to send to troops abroad, a shelf-stable meat that was inexpensive and ready-to-eat.
What many might not realize is that the war actually spread this canned ingredient throughout the world, as well. United States soldiers introduced locals abroad to Spam during the war. As crops were destroyed or wartime restrictions were put upon agriculture and fishing, residents of places like Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, and Hawaii (not yet a U.S. state during WWII), began to depend on Spam as their main source of protein. They incorporated it into local cuisines—and it stuck.
Meanwhile, back in America, the masses began to fatigue on the iconic can of ham. It started to fall out of favor and eventually became viewed as a lowbrow food.
But in the past decade or so, Spam has made a comeback in the states. Asian chefs have been unironically bringing Spam to fine dining restaurants from coast to coast, taking the canned ham from cheap to upscale.
Hormel, Spam's parent company, can attest to the regrowth in popularity. At end of 2019, Spam had its fifth-consecutive record year for sales. "[Spam's] connecting with today’s consumer in a way it never had before," says Jim Snee, Hormel's CEO. "It’s possibly more relevant today than it’s ever been." Over the years, the company has responded to the worldwide palate by introducing a dizzying array of flavored Spam products—teriyaki and chorizo are just two examples—to appeal to more tastes and make the meat increasingly versatile.
Now that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, it might just be Spam’s moment to shine again. “We’re seeing a significant uptick across so many of our businesses,” See says (Hormel's brands include other shelf-stable items such as Skippy peanut butter and Dinty Moore beef stew). News outlets reported Spam was “flying off the shelves.” Americans are turning to this time-tested and reputable canned food as they face a crisis.
Quarantined Americans may be new to cooking with the ingredient, but John Castro's been a Spam fan for decades. A Kentucky-born chef of Filipino and American descent who taught at Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality for nearly 30 years, Castro grew up eating Spam for Sunday breakfast and loves experimenting with it in his dishes. He's served the ingredient at Bottle and Bond (in Bardstown Bourbon Company) in Kentucky, where he was the executive culinary director, and he's wowed friends with his Spam creations at dinner parties.
Castro says now is a great time to play with the classic canned cuisine. “We preach about fresh, but there is a reason canned items like Spam exist,” Castro says. “There have been times in our history when fresh food was hard to come by and shelf-stable items like Spam and dried beef were all you could find. Many Americans are experiencing this for the first time, so they may not understand the importance of cooking with these types of products."
Castro doesn’t see Spam as a lowbrow product. He rejects "classing" any food, pointing out that our perception of all food is constantly changing. He remembers when his Filipino father, a doctor, went to the local butcher in their Kentucky hometown during the 1960s and asked for chicken wings, a delicacy he grew up eating. "The butcher said, ‘Doc, we’ll give them to you, but don’t tell anyone you’re eating these because we only feed them to dogs.' But now look at chicken wings!” Castro says.
It's the same for Spam. “If you break it down, it is pâté in a can," Castro says. "Look at the ingredients on the label, then read a recipe for pâté; they are very similar.” Spam's also fashionable in the environmental sense. "If you want to look at head to tail—that’s what Spam is," he says. "It’s utilizing the entire animal. All these people that are preaching about that, I’m like ‘Spam does that. It always has.’”
Now is the perfect time for the public to see Spam in a new light, Castro says. And as for those who say it’s horrible for you, “It’s not that bad," he says. "Compare it to a lot of foods—for a shelf-stable product or a canned meat, it’s one of the best and most versatile choices out there.”
Another way to think about it: You’re not going to eat rich foods like pâté or foie gras every day. Spam is just your grocery store foie gras, an inexpensive and tasty option waiting to help you up your quarantine cuisine game.
Ready to get cooking? Click here for our A-Z list of tips, tricks, and inspiration for using Spam with flair.