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SPAM sushi and Korean "army base stew" are maybe not the first dishes to pop into your head when you hear the mysterious acronym "SPAM." But people have a way of turning lemons into lemonade, and there's no better example of that then the sealed mystery meat phenomenon.

Food History is a show all about... well, the history of food. Join host Justin Dodd as he brings you the stories of how your favorite meals ended up on your plate. Today, we're talking SPAM. What does SPAM stand for anyway?


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In hard times, people have been known to  turn debatably undesirable ingredients into great cuisine.

I mean, that’s practically the  thesis of this entire series. And it’s exactly what Koreans did with SPAM in the 1950s.

Hi, I’m Justin Dodd. Welcome to Food History. Today we’re diving into everyone’s favorite canned  meat, from army base stew to SPAM sushi.

Let’s get started. 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, Korea—like many other countries and territories  occupied by the U.

S. throughout the 20th century—hasn’t been able to overcome its  SPAM obsession. 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 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. 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. Boy, innovation is something, huh?

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. 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. It may have a dubious reputation today, but in the  beginning, SPAM contained just five 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. If any customers miss the slimier formula they grew up with, they haven’t been very  vocal. But I’ll say it.

Bring back the goo. 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 whoever 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.” I want to believe that the name has  some cool secret meaning that I have to uncover like a Dan Brown novel, but I’m also willing to  entertain the theory that “SPAM” was just fun to say four cocktails into a New Year’s party.

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 option 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 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 GI 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. 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. Take it from me, it’s delicious. 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 their 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 rule 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. Thanks for watching Food History!

What’s  your favorite SPAM dish? Let us know in the comments. Special shoutout to my local dive  bar Swell Dive for serving fried spam tacos that keep me going at 1 am.

Don’t forget  to subscribe, and I’ll see ya next time.