Honestly, I Like Spam
I don’t care what anyone says, I like Spam. Always have. Almost.
Not the online kind. The in-a-can kind.
The can says it’s a luncheon meat. Or used to.
This is Spam’s 85th birthday week. But don’t put Spam on a cake.
It belongs in a sandwich. Though my father used to sizzle up some slices with our eggs and toast on a summer Saturday morning before I had to cut the friggin’ grass. Every single acre of it.
I first met meat-in-can in my childhood before Spam and I became teens. My mother put it in a sandwich as part of my peanut-butter-and-jelly rehab.
It wasn’t that I was addicted to peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, you understand. It’s just that they were the only kind of sandwich I had ever eaten. Or ever would eat. Every school day. From my lunch pail.
Night-before-school after night-before-school, she’d ask, “What would you like for lunch tomorrow?”
Semester after semester. School year after school year. The answer was always the same: “Peanut butter and jelly, please.” My answer became so predictable, she’d ask the question and then say the answer along with me.
I heard her tell other Moms how sick and tired she was of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches school night after school night. Even when we went out to eat, my parents, wincing, would ask the waitress, “Do you have peanut and butter jelly sandwiches?”
Finally, on school vacation one muggy summer day like this one in rural Ohio, Dad was at work. We were going to sit down for lunch together. I did not notice that she had not inquired what I wanted.
Mom set the plate before me and…. The sandwich was not peanut butter and jelly. I stared at it, then at her in juvenile disbelief. The Earth was falling out of orbit. The order of life – of my life anyway — was being shaken.
Peanut butter and jelly was what I had always eaten. I simply would not like anything else.
In that sandwich between two slices of Wonder Bread and lettuce, tomato, and cheese was what resembled some kind of meat, not quite red like meat should be. Kind of a pale red. Maybe pinkish. And cold.
What struck me was that it was not peanut butter and jelly. So, it was disgusting.
“Try it!” she said. “You might like it.”
“Well, how do you know you won’t like it if you haven’t tried it?”
There she went again with that Mom logic. It was her cul de sac argument with no way out. She’d tried that on me a few years before when I resisted afternoon naps. I hated naps. They were like punishments. They kept me away from playing outside with Tim and Joey.
I was angry. “Well, if I do fall asleep,” I yelled, “it’ll be purely accidental!” I heard about that line for many years. Yes, yes, I did fall asleep. But it really was accidental.
Not until decades later, chin-deep into adulthood did I realize that naps for grownups were no longer punishments. They were little mini-vacations from having to do stuff.
“Just try the sandwich,” Mom suggested. “If you don’t like it, you can wait ’til dinner for something else to eat.”
I found that persuasive.
Took a little bite. Meh, not bad. Then, a bigger bite. Actually, it was pretty good, though I told her it was just OK.
That was my introduction to Spam, sometimes called SPAM. I did not know, nor care then that it was a meat concoction of pork shoulder and ham from Minnesota’s Hormel Foods, a company that sells a whole bunch of foods now, including microwave bacon, CornNuts, Dinty Moore, and Skippy peanut butter.
It’s another one of those Midwestern family-food firms like Smucker’s and Kellogg’s that were in every house in those days. Oh, and Quaker Oats.
Hormel’s been around since 1893, but SPAM was invented in 1937 as a product to keep workers employed year-round in farm country and, candidly, to peddle pork-shoulder cuts that did not sell well on their own. Spam was named for a ubiquitous form of unwanted electronic debris that would plague computer users many years down the road.
Just kidding. The company had a product-naming contest and – Oh, look! – it was won by a company executive’s relative – Spam. As in spiced ham.
He won $100, which doesn’t seem like much. But I checked and in today’s Bidendollars, that 1937 prize would now be worth $2,029.83. So, those early Hormel guys took good care of each other.
The neat thing about SPAM was/is it comes in a can. So, no spoilage. Ideal for picnics or last-minute meals. Groceries, dime stores, anywhere could stock SPAM on shelves where cans could sit until some Mom came along looking for a sandwich ingredient that wasn’t peanut butter and jelly.
Those cans actually made SPAM ideal then for U.S. homes, where refrigeration often was still an ice block in a box.
It was ideal too for the upcoming world war when soldiers rarely got meat in field rations. Of course, troops had the usual crude suggestions about what was really in SPAM. The nicer versions called it “ham that failed the physical” and “meatloaf without basic training.”
But it turned out, GI’s liked Spam and they brought that taste home. The military shipped 150 million pounds of it by war’s end, which wasn’t that long before I met the little blue can.
Today, you can buy SPAM in 44 countries, some of which have annual cooking competitions for different SPAM recipes.
SPAM’s always had the same six basic mixed ingredients– pork with ham meat, salt, water, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrite. Not a lot of unpronounceable chemicals and preservatives.
But now there are 15 different flavors including Bacon, Cheese, Teriyaki, lower salt, Hickory Smoke, and, of course, SPAM Lite.
To be honest again though, I’m a SPAM purist. I’m sticking strictly with classic SPAM because that’s the one I like. That’s the one I’ve always eaten. And I simply would not like anything else.
Somewhere, I imagine Mom is saying, “Well, how do you know you won’t like it if you haven’t tried it?”