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Spam: More than Junk Mail or Junk Meat

Spam, which turns 70 this year, has been called the Holy Grail of canned meats. Damning with faint praise? Not when you consider the source: Eric Idle, Monty Python alum and member of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Spamalot.

Monty Python's legendary Spam sketch, which first aired on BBC television in 1970, turned this lowbrow luncheon meat into a kitschy cultural icon. It attained such cult status among Python's geeky, computer-nerd fan base that Spam became synonymous with unwanted junk e-mails. (In the sketch, the word "Spam" is uttered 132 times, often repeatedly and to the chagrin of a couple trying to order breakfast.)

Kitschy or not, Spam is one of the longest-running anachronisms in the American cupboard. Created by Hormel Foods in 1937 and promoted as "the miracle meat," it became K-ration fare for American GIs and Allied forces during World War II. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher referred to it as a "war-time delicacy" and former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said it kept Russian troops alive against the Nazis.

But the meat that helped us win wars in the 20th century now feels dated and nearly extinct in the 21st. Finding a can of Spam in any modern kitchen would be like spotting the Loch Ness monster in your neighbor's trout pond. What is that thing doing here?

Why? For one thing, Spam is too fatty (16 grams of fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 180 calories per 2-ounce serving) and too salty (24 percent of the daily allowance of sodium) for today's health-conscious eater. It is, however, a pretty good source of Vitamin C. For foodie elitists, the processed flavor and mealy consistency put Spam near the bottom of the food ladder, as far away from, say, foie gras or white truffles as Paris Hilton is from a Mensa meeting.

How is it, then, that this pink, gelatinous throwback to the 1930s has sold more than 6 billion cans — and is still selling strongly in the United States and abroad? Who is still eating this canned good that detractors have dubbed "Something Posing As Meat" or "Special Parts After Mutilation"?

The answer might be: You. Try a can yourself. Don't be shy. Surely you've purchased more embarrassing things at the grocery store.

If you've ever eaten a hot dog, you should be comfortable enough eating Spam. The ingredients are mainly pork shoulder and chicken (my motto: don't ask, don't tell). The meat is ground to a medium-course texture, with salt and sugar added for flavor (SPiced hAM, get it?). Nitrites help preserve the color. Then the mixture is mechanically filled into cans and cooked in an oven.

When you open it, don't bother feasting first with your eyes and nose, as you do with other foods. Cut a few slices of Spam and fry them in a pan over medium-low heat. No need to add oil or fat, the pork has plenty of its own. Allow the slices to get slightly crispy, then flip over and repeat on the other side.

Now we're in business. What you have in front of you is a beautiful thing: a universal ingredient that can add flavor and body to any dish. Spam is the Greatest Generation's version of tofu, a block of protein that can be sliced in patties, diced in cubes, or minced and chopped into fine pieces. The difference, however, is that tofu is bland and tasteless; it has to borrow the flavors of its fellow ingredients. Spam, with its high fat and salt content, gives any meal an extra meaty World War II kick in the rear.

Spam is the Paul Giamatti or John C. Reilly of the culinary world, an everyman food that lacks the charisma or looks of a leading ingredient, but consistently makes all other ingredients taste better. Add Spam to sandwiches or pizzas. Chop it up and use it in a casserole or on a salad. Use it to spruce up a dip or an appetizer. You can even put it in sushi rolls, which is the way Hawaiians like it best, and they eat more Spam than anyone else in the country.

My personal favorite use of Spam comes from my Korean upbringing. My parents acquired a taste for Spam in the 1950s, when it was one of the few meats available on the black market during the Korean War. When they moved to the U.S. in the 1960s, they brought with them their love for Spam.

On nights when my mother would get home late from work, my family would sit down to a plate of fried Spam slices, crispy on the edges, egg and scallion omelets, steaming white rice and piles of spicy kimchi, the Korean fermented cabbage that, like Spam, you either love or hate. In my family, you couldn't ask for a more satisfying meal than "Spam and Eggs."

Still not feeling brave enough? Hormel offers plenty of variations of classic Spam to suit your taste. The list goes on and on, almost like the Monty Python sketch: Spam Less Sodium, Spam Garlic, Spam and Cheese, Spam with Bacon, Spam Spread, Spam Lite (which contains pork and chicken), Spam Hot and Spicy, Spam Hickory Smoked, and Spam Oven Roasted Turkey. Hormel even released Spam "Golden Honey Grail" edition in honor of Spamalot, the Monty Python Broadway musical.

Once you give Spam another try, you'll be reminded why this food has survived for as long as it has and why it remains a fixture in American pop culture. You might even find yourself breaking out the same tune the Vikings sang in the Python sketch:

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Howard Yoon
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