A Brief History of SPAM

Jon Mayer
A wall of SPAM.
A wall of SPAM. / Roberto Machado Noa/GettyImages

Even if you've never tried SPAM, you're probably familiar with its iconic packaging and one-of-a-kind name. From Monty Python to Minnesota's SPAM Museum, this little packaged luncheon meat has a big cultural footprint.

In the latest episode of Food History, host Justin Dodd discusses SPAM's history, from army base stew to SPAM musubi, a Hawaiian take on sushi that features fried SPAM in place of fish.

Spam sandwiches
Spam sandwiches / Astrid Stawiarz/GettyImages

Whether you love SPAM or hate it, you probably don't know where the word comes from. That's because its manufacturer, Hormel, guards the true meaning (if there is one) from the public.

According to Life magazine, Jay Hormel 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, brother of a Hormel Foods vice president, received the $100 prize for his short-and-sweet moniker.

A SPAM can celebrates the product's anniversary
A SPAM can celebrates the product's anniversary. / David McNew/GettyImages

Many theories have been floated over the decades to explain the name, 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.

Watch the full video to learn some fun facts about SPAM's history, from its complicated place in Korean culinary history to its surprisingly simple list of ingredients. You can also watch dozens of episodes of Food History on YouTube.