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The Origin of SPAM (The Food) & Spam (The Email)

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SPAM (The Food Item)

First, let's get the ingredients out of the way. SPAM is chopped pork shoulder meat with ham, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrite. Unless, that is, it's SPAM Lite, in which case there's also some chicken thrown in there. Or SPAM Oven Roasted Turkey, which includes (we assume) turkey and is suitable for Muslims.

SPAM was invented in the late-Depression era, in 1937, which may explain at least some of why it seemed like a good idea: people were desperate. According to Nikita Khrushchev's book, Khrushchev Remembers, SPAM was a godsend for another hungry group—Russian soldiers in World War II. For a further illustration of how bad things were, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—who we really, really can't imagine eating SPAM—reportedly once referred to it as a "wartime delicacy."

And what does "SPAM"—sorry, we have to capitalize it that way, Hormel says so—actually stand for? Despite convincing evidence, it doesn't stand for "something posing as meat." The company's official explanation is that it's short for "spiced ham," but that wasn't always its party line. Hormel has also stated in the past that the name stands for "shoulder of pork and ham," although we can sort of understand why it wouldn't necessarily want to drive home the whole "shoulder" thing today. The name was suggested by Kenneth Daigneau, an actor who received the $100 prize in a contest Hormel had sponsored. Conveniently, he just happened to be the brother of a Hormel vice president. We think there's just a little too much mystery in this mystery meat. Then again, SPAM has sold over 6 billion cans, and what have we done lately?

SPAM (The Email Genre)

If you're sick of blaming dethroned Nigerian kings, triple-X porn sites and mail-order purveyors of Viagra for all the junk in your e-mail box, why not take issue with the real rascals behind the word.

In 1970, the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus came up with one of their most beloved and inadvertently prescient sketches, in which a customer in a restaurant desperately tries to order something that doesn't contain SPAM, only to find that pretty much everything on the menu features it. In the course of his ill-fated dinner, a nearby party of Vikings—hey, we did say it was Monty Python—breaks into song: "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, lovely SPAM! Wonderful SPAM!" Clearly, repetition is funny. Also, and more relevant for the relationship between SPAM and email, repetition is annoying.

Apparently, the first people to make the connection between repetitive SPAM and repetitive email were enormous geeks, by which we mean to say they were players in "multi-user dungeons," or very early predecessors of games like World of Warcraft. Brad Templeton, who has done meticulous research on the topic, writes: "The term spamming got used to apply to a few different behaviors. One was to flood the computer with too much data to crash it. Another was to "˜spam the database' by having a program create a huge number of objects, rather then creating them by hand. And the term was sometimes used to mean simply flooding a chat session with a bunch of text inserted by a program (commonly called a "˜bot' today) or just by inserting a file instead of your own real time typing output. When the ability to input a whole file to the chat system was implemented, people would annoy others by dumping the words to the Monty Python SPAM Song. Another report describes indirectly a person simply typing "spam, spam...' in a Multi User Domain with a keyboard macro until being thrown off around 1985."

Early spam consisted of mass invitations to parties, broad anti-war messages ("THERE IS NO WAY TO PEACE. PEACE IS THE WAY"), and appeals for college tuition funding. The classic "MAKE MONEY FAST" appeared as a USENET post in the '80s, Templeton says, but as a one-off, not a constant barrage of email. Then, in 1994, USENET users were warned of a "Global Alert for All: Jesus is Coming Soon" in every single newsgroup. Until then spam had at least been somewhat avoidable. What a quaint era that was.

This piece was excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything.

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This Just In
The Honey Smacks In Your Pantry May Be Contaminated With Salmonella
Doc_Brown, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Cropped.
Doc_Brown, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Cropped.

Salmonella, a bacterial food-borne illness often associated with raw eggs and undercooked chicken, has been linked recently to a popular children's cereal. According to Snopes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging consumers to avoid Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, citing the brand as the likely cause of the Salmonella outbreak spreading across the U.S.

Since early March, 73 people in 31 states have contracted the virus. Salmonella clears up in most people on its own, but in some cases it can lead to hospitalization or even death. Twenty-four victims have been admitted to hospitals so far, with no reported deaths. Of the 39 patients who were questioned, 30 of them remembered eating cold cereal and 14 of them specifically cited Honey Smacks.

In response to the outbreak, the Kellogg Company has recalled its 15.3-ounce and 23-ounce boxes of Honey Smacks printed with any "best if used by" date between June 14, 2018 and June 14, 2019 (recalled boxes are labeled on the bottom with the UPC codes 3800039103 or 3800014810). The CDC recommends that you take even greater precautions by throwing out or returning any Honey Smacks you have at home, regardless of package size, "best by" date, or whether your family has eaten from the box previously without getting sick.

Symptoms of Salmonella include diarrhea, fever, headache, and abdominal pain, and usually appear 12 hours to three days after the contaminated food is ingested. If you or someone in your household is showing signs of the infection, ask a doctor about how to best treat it.

[h/t Snopes]

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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