A Brief History of SPAM

SPAM went from a thrifty convenience meat to one of America’s most successful culinary exports.

Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images (SPAM), Jasmin Merdan/Moment/Getty Images (background)

In hard times, people have been known to turn debatably undesirable ingredients into great cuisine. And it’s exactly what Koreans did with SPAM in the 1950s.

Food shortages plagued Korea in the aftermath of World War II and during the Korean War, and fresh meat was often impossible to find. One of the most reliable ways to get something to eat was to line up outside U.S. army bases and purchase their leftovers—or salvage them from dumpsters. The processed foods the military was willing to throw away—which included SPAM, hot dogs, canned franks and beans, and American cheese singles—were far from home cooking, but they were a good source of salt, calories, and protein. Korean cooks added their own spin to the ingredients by boiling them together in a stew along with kimchi, gochujang (a fermented red chili paste), and whatever else they had access to—which often included some kind of noodles. The resulting recipe was distinctly Korean despite its undeniably American DNA. 

Budae-jjigae, or “army base stew,” was basically an underground dish in the country until the 1980s, with many people sourcing ingredients on the black market. Despite this, South Korea—like many other countries and territories occupied by the U.S. during the 20th century—hasn’t been able to overcome its SPAM obsession. (North Korea manufactures its own SPAM-like canned meat). So how exactly did SPAM go from thrifty convenience meat to one of America’s most successful culinary exports? Before we find out, let’s take a look at its humble beginnings in the Midwest. 

Hormel’s Meaty Innovation

Hormel was already a household name by the time SPAM arrived on the scene. Former slaughterhouse worker George A. Hormel founded the meat processing company in Austin, Minnesota, in 1891. Following years of success selling fresh pork products, the business debuted its Flavor-Sealed Ham in 1926. 

Hormel Truck, Southern California, 1929
Hormel Truck, Southern California, 1929. / University of Southern California/GettyImages

It was a game-changer. The product was made by packing ham into vacuum-sealed containers and cooking the meat in the can, thus keeping it fresh and flavorful until it was ready to consume. It was deboned, but unlike SPAM, it was a whole piece of recognizable meat … in a can. 

Its introduction coincided with the start of a quiet revolution taking place in American kitchens. Technological innovations like the refrigerator saved women time that they otherwise would have spent shopping for fresh groceries and preserving them through laborious methods like curing and pickling. In addition to new appliances, new types of food lightened the domestic load placed on homemakers. Canned ham lasted months in the pantry, and it was ready to eat as soon as it was opened. Even if home cooks gussied it up with pineapples or sugar, it was still less time consuming than picking up a fresh ham from the butcher and cooking it whole.

From Canned Ham to SPAM

Jay Hormel became president of his dad’s company in the late 1920s, and he had some big ideas for the brand—one of which was turning the waste leftover from butchering pork into a brand new type of food. Though it’s a desirable (and delicious) cut of meat today, pig shoulder was widely considered garbage food at that time in America. Hormel was discarding mountains of the scraps each year, so Jay devised a plan to turn them into something consumers would want to eat. The processors at Hormel did this by removing the meat from the bone, grinding it into a paste, and adding flavorings and preservatives. The mixture was then vacuum-sealed and cooked in its container—just like canned ham. 

Spam canned meat stacked vertically in store shelf. Spam is...
SPAM canned meat. / Roberto Machado Noa/GettyImages

It may have a dubious reputation today, but in the beginning, SPAM contained just six ingredients: pork, water, salt, sugar, and sodium nitrate. The recipe for SPAM remained the same until fairly recently, when Hormel added potato starch to the mix. The new ingredient doesn’t change the flavor and is instead meant to soak up the layer of gelatin that forms when SPAM is cooked, giving it a more appetizing appearance. 

SPAM was packaged like Flavor-Sealed Ham and had a similarly long shelf life, but it wasn’t canned ham, exactly. Hormel needed a name for the item that would convey its culinary promise without making any false claims. So, like any sensible businessman, Jay Hormel enlisted his drunk friends. According to Life magazine, he hosted a New Year’s Eve party in which the “price” of each drink was a possible name for the new product, written on a slip of paper. He offered a $100 prize to whomever could come up with the winning name. As Hormel recalled, “Along about the third or fourth drink they began showing some imagination.”

An actor named Ken Daigneau received the $100 prize for his short-and-sweet moniker. Ken was the brother of R.H. Daigneau, a Hormel Foods vice president.

We know where the name SPAM comes from, but the jury’s still out on what it means. Many theories have been floated over the decades, with some saying it’s short for Shoulder of Pork and Ham. Others offer a less-pleasant option: Scientifically Processed Animal Matter. The most common belief is that SPAM is a portmanteau of spiced and ham, despite the fact that the product is neither spiced nor a ham. Hormel hasn’t confirmed any of the rumors, and instead claims that the true meaning “is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives.”  

Hormel’s creation wasn’t the first time someone had molded pork scraps into a block of mystery meat. For centuries, Pennsylvanians have stretched the definition of meat with scrapple—an economical breakfast item consisting of pork trimmings, cornmeal, and spices mushed into a congealed loaf. SPAM was similar, but its packaging made it unique. Like canned ham, a shelf-stable can of SPAM was a desirable choice for busy home cooks. Hormel marketed the product’s versatility—it could be sliced, diced, baked, fried, or eaten cold out of the container. It appealed to the country’s growing taste for processed convenience foods. By 1940, 70 percent of urban Americans were purchasing canned meats, up from 18 percent in 1937.

SPAM and the Military

SPAM may have been catching on in American households, but the military is where it really took off. During wartime, when fresh meat was scarce, canned meat was more than convenient—it was life-sustaining. In addition to being filling, tasty, and high in protein, SPAM was easy to transport—it didn’t need to be refrigerated or heated up. And most importantly, it was cheap. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act in 1941, authorizing the U.S. to ship food and other goods to allies during World War II, Hormel began shipping 15 million cans of meat overseas per week, most of which was SPAM.

The canned meat was certainly on the minds of American service members, some of whom were sick of being given the stuff for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Private First Class Lewis B. Closser got so fed up with the monotonous diet that he wrote a letter to Hormel, asking them to not send any SPAM overseas for a few weeks, even if it meant he and his fellow servicemen would go hungry.

That’s where the story, outlined in a 1944 issue of Yank: The Army Weekly, takes a turn. Hormel wrote back to Closser, claiming that “Since the war started, we have not sold a single can of SPAM to the U.S. Army.” The letter said that the standard 12-ounce cans of SPAM weren’t practical for Army use and claimed that soldiers were eating a different luncheon meat that GIs were incorrectly calling SPAM.

Can closed? Not exactly. According to the book SPAM: A Biography by Carolyn Wyman, Hormel’s letter kicked off a firestorm from army cooks and soldiers swearing they had prepared and eaten the real stuff. It culminated with a picture of a G.I. standing behind a line of genuine SPAM tins. Wyman says that Hormel looked again and determined that, in 1942, the Army had ordered a bunch of SPAM as a substitute for government luncheon meat. Plus, with all of the SPAM being sent overseas as part of Lend-Lease, it’s possible that some got diverted into U.S. Army hands.

Either way, wherever the U.S. military went in the mid-20th century, SPAM seemed to follow. That had an unintended impact on the global culinary scene. During World War II, SPAM (or some other canned product people were calling SPAM, at least) was just as popular with G.I.s stationed in Hawaii as it was in Europe. Locals began incorporating it into their cuisine, though it was more out of necessity than love for the salty meat slabs.

In 1940, a federal statute was passed preventing owners of large fishing boats from obtaining licenses if they weren’t U.S. citizens; at the same time, there were laws preventing Japanese immigrants from obtaining U.S. citizenship. A year later, non-citizens were banned from using various fishing nets within one mile of Hawaii’s shoreline. Together, these laws not only hurt Japanese-Hawaiian fishermen, but other Hawaiians who relied on their fishing businesses for food and jobs. With a hole left in the local economy, canned meat like SPAM became a lifeline. 

The Global Success of SPAM

SPAM stuck around in Hawaii following World War II, and locals have transformed it from survival food to a symbol of cultural pride. Every year the Honolulu neighborhood of Waikiki hosts SPAM JAM, a festival where restaurants get to show off dishes like SPAM Musubi, a Hawaiian take on sushi featuring fried SPAM in place of fish wrapped around rice with nori. The people of Hawaii consume more than 7 million cans of SPAM per year, more per capita than any U.S. state.

SPAM has found similar success in countries throughout Asia and Polynesia. The U.S. brought the product to the Philippines during its colonization of the islands. Today SPAMsilog—consisting of fried SPAM served with eggs and garlic fried rice—is a popular Filipino breakfast.

Budae-jjigae may be the most popular application for SPAM outside of America, but it was nearly no more than a blip in Korea’s culinary history. During Park Chung-hee’s leadership from 1961 to 1979, South Korea imposed very high meat tariffs, which basically restricted SPAM to the wealthiest of society. The exception? People who went to the black market, where they could buy tax-free SPAM taken from the American bases.

Thanks to its high-end and contraband status, SPAM had evolved from something found in dumpsters to a prized ingredient in the eyes of many Koreans. The fact that fresh meat was still scarce in the postwar period boosted this perception. 

Hormel licensed the product to a South Korean manufacturer in the 1980s, and it’s been widely available there ever since, but its luxurious reputation remains. Today some Koreans exchange cans of SPAM as gifts on holidays. According to the Korea Herald, “SPAM gift sets account for 60 percent of annual sales” in the country.  Budae-jjigae is still a common way to consume the food, and there are even restaurant chains dedicated to serving the decadent dish. 

Army base stew is beloved across generational lines in South Korea, but some diners refuse to separate it from its painful origins. In an article, sociologist Grace M. Cho called the dish a “culinary travesty and an iconic symbol of U.S. imperialism.” But she doesn’t deny the important place it occupies in Korean culture. She also wrote that “it represents the creativity that emerged from devastation, a legacy of the complicated relationship between Koreans and Americans.” The global success of SPAM proves that people have a knack for making lemonade out of lemons—even when those lemons come in the form of slimy canned meat.

This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.