In Hawaii, Spam is served at grandma’s house and in high-end restaurants. It’s beloved. But in the continental U.S., the canned pork product is often the punchline of jokes. Why does Spam have such different meanings in different places? The answer involves World War II, Monty Python, and a troupe of singing saleswomen.
Produced by Julia Press, with Charlie Herman and Sarah Wyman.
- How the makers of Spam stopped worrying about being a global punchline and learned to embrace the joke
- Carolyn Wyman, SPAM: A Biography
- Arnold Hiura, Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands
- Robert Ku, Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
CHARLIE HERMAN: Spam means different things to different people. These days, for me, it means…
Robocalls. For others, emails. 10% off socks from your favorite online site! Or an all expense paid vacation giveaway… you do remember entering, don’t you?
And then this really exciting development: spam texts! Do political ads count? In my book, yes.
However you slice it, no one really asks for spam.
Unless, that is, you are literally, slicing it!
CH: As in Spam, the canned pork product.
ROBERT KU: You’d eat it at home, you’d eat it out, you’d eat it in picnics, you’d eat it at schools.
CH: When it comes to this kind of spam, the one with 180 calories per serving, you’ll find people who will tell you…
TAMIKO HAYASHIDA: You’re gonna love it.
CAROLYN WYMAN: Spam, baked bean and pineapple casserole…to me is like the perfect blending of textures and tastes.
CH: Yes, they think Spam is great.
What’s in that can of Spam? It’s comfort food. It’s a punchline. And it actually does have a connection to those unwanted calls and emails.
You may think… you know all you need-to-know about Spam, but do you?
From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Charlie Herman.
Today, Spam. Some people hate it, others can not get enough of it. But where you stand on Spam might depend on where — and when — you grew up.
How did Spam evolve to have this double life?
With a can opener in hand, our producer Julia Press went to find out. Stay with us.
JULIA PRESS: Ok Charlie, it’s clear you don’t know the first thing about Spam, because you don’t open it using a can opener! It has one of those little pull tab things.
CH: Wow, shade right off the bat! I guess then you won’t be surprised to hear that I do not know a lot about Spam. I’ve always thought of it as this kind of mystery meat, it’s not something I’ve really had.
JP: So yeah, in the continental US, a lot of people see it that way. But the really fascinating thing about Spam is that in Hawaii, it’s totally different. It’s a lot like Darwin’s finches!
JP: Yeah so Darwin realized that these finches on the Galapagos Islands had all come from the same original bird, but they’d actually adapted to the different environments on different islands. That’s just like Spam. On the continental US, Spam has had this roller coaster journey from loved to hated to trendy food to laughing stock of the country. But in Hawaii, in the middle of the Pacific, on these islands, Spam has had a straight upward trajectory. So I’m going to tell the story of Spam twice: first on the mainland US, and then in Hawaii.
CH: Okay. A tale of two Spams. Take it away!
JINGLE ONE: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam. Hormel’s new miracle meat in a can.
JP: The story of Spam starts in the tiny town of Austin, Minnesota, with this company called Hormel. Hormel was a meatpacking company that had been selling fresh and cured meats since 1891. But Austin was a really tiny town—back in 1920, it only had about 10,000 residents.
So Jay Hormel, who inherited his father’s company, had started experimenting with more processed foods to sell his product to a wider market. But he was a little… disconnected from the everyday struggles of the working man.
CW: He lived in a mansion. It was a 97 room mansion with 27 bathrooms.
JP: That’s Carolyn Wyman, who literally wrote the book on Spam—it’s called Spam: A Biography. And according to Wyman, when the Great Depression hit and food got scarce, Jay Hormel was busy trying to sell the public on gourmet French onion soup and tomato bretonne.
CW: They didn’t sell at all because, you know, at the time, forget gourmet soups, people were standing in soup lines just to be able to live.
JP: By 1937 though, the Hormels got with the program. They rolled out this new, cheap, filling food option: canned lunch meat.
HORMEL VIDEO: Pork shoulder and ham meat are taken from this picnic boning line and used for the manufacture of Spam.
JP: What exactly is Spam?
CW: It’s basically meat, it’s a…pure meat product with just, a few additives to, uh, make it last longer.
HORMEL VIDEO: The raw material is then pumped to the can-filling machines where the tins are automatically filled and vacuum-sealed.
CW: A lot of people don’t realize that Spam is cooked in the can. It’s really, you know, the ingredients are really nothing to be afraid of. It’s good meat.
JP: That may be the case, but as Hormel’s former PR chief told Wyman, housewives “had been raised by their mothers to believe that if you ate meat that had not been refrigerated, you’d be sick the next day.” The public might take some convincing.
CW: So they had to market Spam from day one. First it was in magazine ads, and then eventually they advertised on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which is hugely popular.
BURNS AND ALLEN: Nothing is just like Spam my friends and so with this our poem ends. Cold or hot, Spam hits the spot.
JP: By the time they stopped advertising on the show in 1940, 70 percent of urban Americans had tried Spam. But a year later, the whole country would be spun off its course, and Spam right along with it.
FDR: December 7, 1941.
JP: The Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii was attacked by Japanese fighter planes…
FDR: A date which will live in infamy.
JP: And the U.S. entered World War II. 12 million military personnel were sent across the globe to fight, and the army had to figure out how to feed them.
ARMY VIDEO: When a soldier is out in the field and away from camp cooks, he must carry his own rations.
JP: They needed something that was compact, durable, and cheap, but also filling.
ARMY VIDEO: Pre-cooked meats for emergency rations were developed in the army laboratory for this purpose.
JP: So the army ordered a bunch of canned meat, from Hormel and other companies, to send off to troops. Hormel was also churning out Spam to send to civilians in other Allied countries the US was supporting.
Soldiers were getting Spam too, but in addition to Spam, the government had Hormel producing a different type of canned meat, using a government specified recipe. It was designed specifically for soldiers, not grocery store shelves. It was more heavily cooked and salted, to put up with the heat of the Philippines and the cold of Ireland. It actually didn’t have any ham in it at all! But the troops receiving the meat couldn’t tell the difference. It was all Spam to them.
CW: Because Spam was already so well established with consumers in the US, all the soldiers like said, ‘Oh, this is Spam.’ And so it became this huge public relations nightmare in a way because there were so many large initial shipments and distribution issues that soldiers, some soldiers were eating Spam or luncheon meat, you know, one two three times a day and they’re getting really sick of it.
JP: Spam was blamed for all the troops’ canned meat frustrations.
CW: They called it ham that didn’t pass its physical. And the real reason war was hell. I mean, there were some guys that just hated it.
JP: Like Raul Baca Martinez, who recalled this in an oral history recorded by the University of Texas at Austin:
RAUL BACA MARTINEZ: We got so tired of Spam. Somebody, found a dog and adopted it and they would throw Spam and the dog would [spitting sound], he just spit it out. Even the dog didn’t want any more Spam.
JP: That’s right, even the dog wouldn’t eat it. Troops started repurposing it for more inventive uses.
CW: They used the gel to like moisturize their hands. They used it to grease their guns, even to waterproof boots. In a way, it was like comic relief for a lot of people. There were jokes, there were songs.
JOHNNY MERCER: There’s Spam and wham and deviled ham and something new called zoom…that’s the situation, when you’ve got the duration blues…
JP: Hormel got stacks of hate mail from soldiers who said they ate Spam during the war and thought it was terrible. And this continued until 1945, when peace was declared and the troops were sent home. The war was over.
MACARTHUR: My fellow countrymen. Today the guns are silent.
JP: By this point, 90 percent of Hormel’s canned products were going to the military or military aid programs abroad. And a lot of soldiers swore they never wanted to see Spam again.
CW: And Jay Hormel, he worried that Spam was going to be a casualty of the war.
JP: So he dreamt up this idea.
He’d form a musical group of 60 female World War II vets. He’d call them, The Hormel Girls. Here’s one of them, Jacki Altier-Roth, in a video at Hormel’s Spam Museum. Yes, you heard that right: The Spam Museum.
JACKI ALTIER-ROTH: It was like a 56 hour week it was a tough schedule but we would get up on Monday and get into our uniforms, our cute uniforms, we looked like stewardesses with our, we had our little plastic bags with the dummy products in there: the Spam and Dinty Moore Beef Stew, and Mary Kitchen Hash, all that stuff…
JP: They traveled the country in 35 white Chevys, performing in competitions and marching in parades and selling Hormel products door-to-door.
CW: So it was a way to kind of, you know, reform Spam’s image a bit and with, with people that had authority because they were ex-GIs.
JP: They even got their own radio show.
MARILYN WILSON: This is Marilyn Wilson and the all girls show, “Music with the Hormel Girls”…
CW: It was like a program length commercial because they had ads in it. But then they also like, the skits and things that happened in between the ads also talked about Hormel products. Like they were constantly cooking and stuff.
HORMEL GIRLS: We love tater pie, p-i-e-e-e-i-p pie. E for I for pass a piece of pie for we just love that tater pie…
CW: Sales of Hormel products in general actually doubled, you know, from the time they started in ’46 to, to ’53 so it was successful.
JP: In 1953, the show was so popular that it ranked 4th in Nielsen’s yearly ratings. But that year would be the last of The Hormel Girls. It was just too expensive to keep them going forever.
HORMEL GIRLS: Time for us to say ‘Goodbye, neighbor’ from the Hormel Girls and let’s get together again soon.
JP: But by the time they sang their last song, they’d done a great deal to recoup Spam’s image after the war.
Spam wasn’t just tolerated, it was seen as trendy. It actually fit right into the growing processed food industry that was catering to women who’d entered the workforce during the war.
CW: By the fifties and sixties, it was really…not just acceptable, but it was considered what you should do to use these convenience products. They were like products of technology.
AD ONE: A dinner for friends. And a noble glazed ham crowning the table. Out of the can, glazed in about one hour and ready to serve. A kind of magic…
CW: At that time my mom was, worked full time as a teacher and she used all these products. And we, we liked it. You know, like when I first had ham I was like, this is like tough, you know, it didn’t have the right texture to me, you know, cause Spam is similar, but it’s much softer and, uh, I just like it better. It’s just the norm for me.
AD TWO: There’s only one Spam and you can serve Spam so many different ways. Spam and eggs. Broiled cheese Spamwich…
JP: Spam was making its way onto dinner tables. In 1970, the two-billionth can of Spam was produced. But that very same year, a Monty Python sketch came out that would make Spam a laughingstock again.
[Monty Python music]
CW: Some English comics whose parents had ODed on Spam created this skit with a cafe where everything on the menu has spam in it.
SERVER: Spam eggs Spam Spam bacon and Spam. Spam Spam Spam baked beans Spam Spam and Spam.
CUSTOMER: Have you got anything without Spam in it?
SERVER: Well Spam eggs sausage and Spam does not got much Spam in it.
CUSTOMER: I don’t want any Spam!
JP: When that three-and-a-half minute skit made its way to the US, it completely upended Hormel’s efforts to turn Spam’s image around.
KNIGHTS: Spam Spam Spam Spam….
JP: And now a new generation was cracking jokes about it.
In Texas, a group of friends launched a Spamarama cooking festival based on the idea that, and these are their words, not mine: “if somebody could make Spam edible, that would be an accomplishment.” There have been “Spamalympics” and “Spam-carving, sculpture contests”.
CW: And the second prize was a Spam casserole. And the third prize was two Spam casseroles.
JP: By the ’90s, Spam had become shorthand for unwanted and incessant contact. So much so that early Internet users adopted it to describe a new phenomenon: Internet junk mail.
[“YOU’VE GOT MAIL” SOUND]
At first, Hormel wanted nothing to do with all this. They refused to acknowledge the skit and bitterly fought the idea that Spam was anything but a quality product. As Hormel’s former CEO, Jeffrey Ettinger, told CBS Sunday Morning, they might have taken it a little too far:
CBS SUNDAY MORNING: I think maybe our low moment with it was when we decided to sue the Muppets.
JP: Over a pig character they claimed “falsely personifies Spam as a nasty pagan brute.”
MUPPETS: I am Spa’am. High priest of the boars…
JP: Hormel lost the suit and its appeal. In fact, the judges said the company should be happy the name was associated with “a genuine source of pork.” But around this time in the 90s, Hormel was starting to see the benefit of embracing this new reputation, for better or for worse. It started running a new type of ad, showing a flustered guy, tricked into eating Spam, trying to justify why he’d liked it.
AD THREE: Spam was made with ham, right? So really, this is a hamburger.
JP: It ran print ads with the slogan, “I can’t believe I’ve just eaten Spam.” It sponsored the Monty Python musical spinoff “Spamalot” on Broadway.
SPAMALOT: We eat ham and jam and spam a lot. Spam Spam Spam Spam…
JP: A Hormel spokesperson told me that Spamalot is a great example of Hormel loosening up with the product’s image. Here, the company chose to fully embrace Spam’s cultural impact, which at that point had transcended the product itself.
CW: It became so mainstream that it wasn’t that threatening anymore. Good or bad, you’re at least acknowledging my existence. And to start at that place when you’re trying to market a food product. That’s not a bad place to be. I mean, at least everyone knows what it, that it exists. You know, it’s one of the few food products that’s probably as well known by people who don’t eat it as by people who do.
JP: When the new millennium was approaching, and some people were stocking up their bunkers, Spam sales shot up. It happened again when the 2008 recession hit.
And that’s how some people like me, in the continental US, grew up thinking of Spam as something you just would not eat, unless times were desperate.
JINGLE TWO: You don’t say ham, you say Spam. Spam is real spiced ham. You don’t say ham, you say Spam…
CH: After the break, the story of Spam in Hawaii.
CH: We’re back. In the continental US, Spam spent the last eighty years in a kind of love-hate relationship with much of the public. Meanwhile, on the Hawaiian islands, the same events that changed how mainlanders felt about Spam gave the canned pork product a completely different reputation. (Remember Darwin and those finches?) Producer Julia Press picks up the story.
JP: To understand why Spam evolved so differently in Hawaii, you have to get why it was primed to embrace a food like Spam before it even arrived. For one thing, these islands are thousands of miles from the nearest landmass, which means food access is limited.
ARNOLD HIURA: Everything we have comes by boat. If there’s any kind of disruption in the transportation, we’re in the middle of the Pacific. You can’t jump in your car and drive to the next state. People had to make do with what they could get.
JP: That’s Arnold Hiura, executive director of the Hawaii Japanese Center and author of a book called Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands.
Hiura says this limited access has fundamentally shaped the cuisine of Hawaii. And another factor… is immigration. Starting in the mid-1800s, Western settlers saw an opportunity to make money by setting up sugar plantations in Hawaii. But much like in the rest of America, settlers had brought diseases that wiped out much of the native Hawaiian population.
AH: And so they looked outside for sources of labor starting with China. And eventually followed by Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, Filipino, Puerto Rican and others to work on Hawaii’s sugar plantations. So Hawaii became this very multicultural place.
JP: Plantations became the place where immigrants from all these different countries connected, and food was a big part of that, because they got to know each other through sharing their lunches. So the people of Hawaii were used to embracing new foods, and whatever foods they could get their hands on, by the time the Pearl Harbor naval base was attacked by Japanese fighter planes.
FDR: A date which will live in infamy.
JP: And the U.S. entered World War II.
AH: Hawaii immediately becomes a war zone. You know it is the point of attack. And by being declared a war zone, civil liberties are suspended. Military rule takes over.
JP: More than a million people, from troops to civilian workers, flooded into Hawaii, far outnumbering the local population. And the people of Hawaii were in a particularly strange spot: they were living under wartime conditions, dealing with things like food rations and blackouts along with the rest of the country, but they weren’t considered fully American. At this time, Hawaii wasn’t a state yet, it was a US territory. Plus, its largest ethnic group came from Japan: the very place that had just attacked the US.
ROBERT KU: People of Hawaii I think recognized that there was this sort of sense of racial hierarchy.
JP: That’s Robert Ku, he’s chair of the department of Asian and Asian American studies at Binghamton University.
RK: And that manifested in various ways. One way of course is sort of envying the military because the troops that were stationed in Hawaii were predominantly white. So anything associated with military then I think had a positive, largely positive aspect.
JP: And one of those foods associated with the military, that arrived on the islands along with the troops, was Spam.
JINGLE ONE: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam. Hormel’s new miracle meat in a can.
RK: We’re talking about really poor people with very little access to good food and Spam and other canned meats did in many regards represent sort of this good life or better quality food.
JP: In Hawaii, Spam was not a joke-worthy mystery meat. It was associated with the luxury and high quality of the US military.
Plus, it was the perfect food for people living in this war zone. Food was being rationed, and the fishing industry, which had offered an important source of protein to the islands, was restricted because it was mostly run by Japanese fishermen. And at the time, there wasn’t much access to refrigeration.
Enter, Spam: this protein-rich, cheap, nonperishable food. And as an added bonus, it went great with the basis of Hawaii’s diet.
RK: Rice being a very bland staple, requires something highly spiced or salted or flavored and Spam I think fit the bill.
JP: Spam is actually popular in a lot of places like Hawaii, that have rice-based diets, hot climates and a history of US military presence. For instance, Korea, Guam, and the Philippines are all huge Spam fans.
RK: Primarily I think people loved the taste of Spam, you know, if you get down to it.
JP: By 1945, when peace was declared and many of the troops were sent home from Hawaii, Spam had become a hit.
MACARTHUR: My fellow countrymen. Today the guns are silent.
JP: But the end of the war did not mark the end of Hawaii’s love affair with Spam. After all, a lot of the food people of Hawaii were eating still came from overseas, and relying on the shipping industry was risky! Spam was a good option to keep in the cupboard. Here’s Hiura again, who wrote a book about Hawaii’s cuisine and culture.
AH: That’s also reflective of an island mentality. People tend to stock up, and a can of spam was part of that survival kit I think.
JP: Bob Masuda, who grew up in Hawaii during the postwar period, was even fed Spam at school lunch.
BOB MASUDA: I remember as an elementary school kid, they would serve spam. They would dress it up and make it like a baked ham you know with, cloves and crushed pineapple and score it and it actually tastes not bad.
JP: Soon, Spam was being incorporated into all sorts of recipes. Some, more successful than others.
ANN KONDO CORUM: Oh I tried some that were not really great.
JP: Ann Kondo Corum has written two Hawaii Spam Cookbooks.
AKC: A Spam cake, trying to mix Spam into a cake mix, to me it didn’t taste very good.
JP: She’s an expert on the many shapes and forms Spam has taken on dinner tables across Hawaii since the war.
AKC: The funny thing about this cookbook is that when people heard I was writing it they started sending me recipes, ‘oh you should try this, my grandma used to make this’ and ‘oh this is so delicious you have to try it.’
JP: Hawaii became a US state in 1959, but as the years went on, the perception of Spam in Hawaii grew farther and farther away from its reputation in the continental US.
MONTY PYTHON SERVER: Spam Spam Spam baked beans Spam Spam and Spam…
JP: People in Hawaii knew about Monty Python. They knew that in the continental US, Spam was laughed at. But that didn’t matter to them.
JP: How did you react to that?
AKC: We’d say ‘we like it! You know like I don’t know why you don’t like it.’ We saw Caucasian people and they’d see us buying spam and they’d go ‘oooh, how can you eat that?’ But in Hawaii it’s just loved. We have emotional ties to Spam. It’s comfort food. It’s food that your grandma served you. It’s a part of our culture.
JP: In fact, that was Kondo Corum’s inspiration for writing her cookbook in the first place.
AKC: We went to a bookstore and on the racks there was a book called White Trash Cooking and my publisher Buddy Bess and I both looked at each other and said ‘Spam cookbook.’
JP: Today, Hawaii goes through 7 million cans of Spam each year—and there aren’t even one and a half million people living there! There’s this one particularly popular dish called Spam musubi—it’s basically a ball of sushi rice topped with a slab of fried Spam, all wrapped up in seaweed. Robert Ku, who grew up in Hawaii, says it’s the most common way it’s served on the islands today.
RK: If you go to a 7-Eleven in Hawaii, you can pick up musubi like you might pick up coffee and donuts or something elsewhere. It’s that ubiquitous.
JP: You can find Spam in tons of different forms, in tons of different places throughout the islands. It pops up on fast food menus.
SPAMWICH: Spam Croissandwich, made with eggs, cheese and Spam on a warm flaky croissant. Only at Burger King Hawaii. Have it your way.
JP: It’s also incorporated into high end cuisine. People call it the “Hawaiian steak”—and not ironically. Anthony Bourdain chatted about it with famous Hawaii chef Mark Noguchi.
ANTHONY BOURDAIN: What’s your feeling about Spam?
MARK NOGUCHI: I love Spam!
AB: So you’re Hawaiian?
MN: I’m from Hawaii. I’m born and raised…
JP: Every year, there’s a huge festival in Waikiki called the Spam Jam that attracts tens of thousands of visitors.
KHON 2: Two stages of entertainment, all the Spam merchandise you could want for sale and 16 restaurants offering their spin on Spam.
JP: At this festival, there’s no Spam carving contest. Nobody’s going home with two Spam casserole trophies. For people in Hawaii, Spam isn’t the butt of the joke—people on the mainland kind of are.
RK: It’s kind of an internal joke among people of Hawaii that the mainlanders think Spam is so gross or so funny or such a mystery meat, whereas for people on Hawaii, it’s something that’s quite positive and delicious.
JP: In recent years, Spam has started popping up on mainland menus—mostly at places run by Asian American chefs or people connected to Hawaii. And through these restaurants, more people in the continental US are starting to look at it as a viable food option. But for people like Ku, the only logical reaction to this Spam awakening: what took you so long?
RK: Like wow, finally everyone is catching up to us, because we’ve been eating Spam all our lives because it’s so delicious, but now we see that even people in the mainland are seeing Spam as something that’s good to eat.
CH: So that’s the evolution of Spam in two different places. After the break, we merge them and get a taste of Spam—literally.
CH: We’re back. In our New York studio. Far away from the warmth and the beaches of Hawaii.
JP: What are you talking about Charlie? I can still taste the salt in the air.
CH: Ok Julia, so what is next?
JP: So I want to introduce Sam Crozier. She’s a good friend of mine from college and the minute she heard I was doing this story, she was excited to show me the world of Spam through her eyes. She actually grew up near Honolulu and she’s part Japanese and part Native Hawaiian. So for her, Spam’s popularity epitomizes that multicultural aspect of herself and of Hawaii.
SAM CROZIER: It’s not really linked to any ethnic identity, it’s not really linked to any racial identity, it’s just linked to Hawaii itself.
JP: And she told me she has particularly strong memories of growing up eating Spam in the form of musubi, which, again is that seaweed-wrapped rice ball topped with Spam.
SC: It was kind of the Hawaii PB&J, like it would kind of be the thing that people would bring in their lunchboxes, everybody would have Spam musubis and your juice boxes and your apple.
JP: In other words, Spam musubi was just another food fueling Sam’s hopscotch games and trips across the monkey bars, something she didn’t really think twice about until she left Hawaii to go to boarding school in Massachusetts when she was 13.
SC: You know when you’re in Hawaii and you’re growing up with it, it becomes like your meat and potatoes, you’re just like ‘ah, like this is what we have,’ but once you step away you’re like ‘oh my gosh, I miss that. That was so good.’ And I think that that is where, it’s become I think this Hawaii pride thing.
JP: But she does not expect Spam to stay Hawaii’s best kept secret forever—after all, she’s seen people on the mainland claim once-overlooked Hawaii foods as their own before. I mean, just look at poke bowls.
JP: Do you think that Spam musubi is the hipster food of tomorrow?
SC: I 100% do. Like it’s not even that hard of a flavor palette to understand, it’s really just good. Once you have a Spam musubi, you get it!
JP: This was something that I’d been hearing throughout my reporting—I needed to try it to really get it. And I wasn’t just a musubi newbie—I’d never actually tried Spam at all! So I asked Sam if we could take a trip to her kitchen.
[stove turning on]
JP: How much does a can of Spam cost?
SC: Oh probably like a dollar or two.
JP: I paid $5.29 for this.
JP: New York—
SC: New York City, man. They’re gentrifying Spam! (laughs)
JP: We started with making a marinade.
JP: Ok. So we need a quarter cup oyster sauce, a quarter cup soy sauce, a half cup sugar. A half cup sugar?
SC: Yeah. It’s like sugar and shoyu.
JP: Whoa. It’s sweeter than I realized.
SC: Yeah it’s pretty sweet.
JP: Hm ok.
JP: When the sauce was ready, it was time to get Spammy.
JP: The moment of truth.
SC: You should do the honors, Julia.
JP: Ok I guess I will.
SC: Open this Spam can.
[can opening sound]
JP: Oooohh. It’s pinker than I imagined.
SC: Yeah, it’s, it’s I feel like maybe the color of bologna?
JP: It’s like uncooked bacon.
SC: Mmm yeah. It does look like uncooked bacon.
JP: But it’s already pre-cooked. That’s very confusing to me. It looks like this…it’s like a pink gelatinous mound.
SC: Yeah I think it gets less mushy when you cook it, it becomes a little bit, the sauce like caramelizes a little bit?
JP: Whoa. Oh that one’s browning nicely!
JP: Then came the best part. Sam has this musubi mold—it’s the exact shape of a slice of Spam, and once we’d cooked up some rice and egg, we cut the egg into Spam-sized pieces, put the mold on top of a piece of seaweed, and popped all the ingredients in.
JP: [gasp] It’s magic! Oh it’s so cute!
JP: I’d done all this research and reporting and thinking about Spam’s history, but Spam, the actual food, had felt totally distant until I was face-to-face with it in Sam’s kitchen. In a way, it was kind of like another tale of two Spams—I grew up knowing Spam based entirely on what I’d heard about it.
[MONTAGE OF SPAM CLIPS]
And even though I’d never tasted it, I had a really strong opinion! I didn’t just know what it was—I thought that it was probably gross and it was funny and I would never choose to eat it. And that experience, of knowing Spam as this cultural icon is so different from how my friend Sam grew up. She brought Spam on picnics, ate it at her grandma’s house, she pulled it out of her lunchbox at school.
It was time for me to get to know Spam for what it really is, not just what I’d heard about it. In other words it was time to eat.
JP: Honestly, the flavor isn’t even very strong of Spam.
SC: Mm really?
JP: Yeah, I mean there’s so much in there like the egg, the rice. It feels like really, it’s like a well balanced meal in your hand.
JP: I guess it’s just porky but with like a sweet soy aftertaste.
SC: Mhm. Do you like it?
JP: Mhm! It’s good!
CH: Julia Press is a producer at Brought to you by…
CH: We’re working on an exciting episode for April Fool’s Day and we want to hear from you! What are your favorite stories about brand named companies and pranks or jokes? I’m old enough to remember crank calling people and asking “Do you have ‘Prince Albert’ in a can?” even though I had no idea what Prince Albert was…
Got your own story to share? Leave us a voicemail at (646) 768-4777, or send a voice memo recording to email@example.com.
This episode was reported and produced by Julia Press with Sarah Wyman and me, Charlie Herman.
Special thanks to Tamiko Hayashida, Thomas Kobara, and Julia Mates.
Thanks also to Brian Olson and Brian Lillis at Hormel.
Bill Moss is our sound engineer. Music from Audio Network. Casey Holford and John DeLore composed our theme. Our editor is Micaela Blei. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.
Brought to you by… is a production of Insider Audio.