After 75 years, and about 50 of those being a favorite punching bag, SPAM may be getting the last laugh.
How else do you explain 7 billion cans and counting? Somebody’s buying, and presumably eating, all that SPAM.
People like Beverly Hafers of Charleston. On one hand, she enjoys elegant food and fine dining in tony restaurants. But a SPAM snob she is not.
“Sometimes you have to get down to what you really like,” says the 75-year-old. As a matter of fact, she says she is holding a SPAM Single Classic in her hand as she talks on the phone.
“I don’t know what it has in it, but it doesn’t matter, I like it.”
That is the kind of consumer who has paved the way for SPAM to celebrate its 75th anniversary this month, which Hormel is marking with a bit of touché. The company has introduced two new “limited-edition” flavors, black pepper and jalapeno, in an appeal to the modern palate. It also is — mark your calendars — hosting a community celebration July 28 in Austin, Minn., home of the official SPAM Museum.
Over the years, Hormel has found a way to turn SPAM’s kitsch into a marketing tool.
The SPAM brand is part of the American fabric “with a passionate community that matches its sense of humor and fun-loving energy,” says Nicole L. Behne, senior product manager.
The company doesn’t know who cracked the first joke, but the company insists it plays “along with the best of them,” according to Behne.
She points to the 2005 release of the limited edition SPAM Golden Honey Grail in honor of Monty Python’s “SPAMALOT” Broadway show.
(Nonetheless, some reports say Hormel was not amused when “spam” became the common term for junk email.)
The mystery meat reputation isn’t really deserved, yet it endures to some degree despite Hormel’s best efforts to get the message across. The meat of SPAM is pork shoulder (the same part used in pulled pork barbecue) and ham, from the hindquarters. The rest is salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrate.
Take Caroline Faltynski of Mount Pleasant. The 16-year-old doesn’t mind her fishy-smelling work — she was selling shrimp at a Shem Creek dock recently — but hasn’t even given SPAM a try. And doesn’t intend to.
Still, Faltynski is a good sport about the 75th affair, spontaneously declaring “Happy Spamaversary!”
There is something about SPAM that seems to invite the comedic spin.
In Murray Tanner’s family, it’s the Shmooburger.
“That’s still a favorite in our family. Even our 50-year-old kids still like that.”
The burger “patty,” actually a spread, is made with ground SPAM, Velveeta cheese, onion and ketchup. It’s swabbed on buns and broiled until the cheese melts.
Actually, Tanner didn’t come up with the name or the recipe. It came from his aunt’s first-grade class in St. Louis in the mid-1950s. She made a scrapbook of recipes the kids brought from home, and one was the “Shmooburger.”
Shmoo was a fictional creature in the comic strip “Li’l Abner.” Al Capp brought out the asexual, rapidly reproducing shmoo, which looked like a rotund bowling pin, in 1948, and it became a post-war craze in the United States.
“The shmoo was a big thing,” says Tanner of Summerville.
While he has eaten SPAM since World War II and still eats a fried slice for lunch now and then, “the recipe really did it for us.”
Hormel seems to be taking a cue from funny characters in its latest advertising campaign.
The company has introduced its first “spokescharacter,” a 21/2-inch-tall knight dubbed Sir Can-A-Lot whose quest is “to rescue the world from routine meals.”
June La Via of James Island was raised in the 1940s and she, too, says SPAM was just “one of the things we had” in the pantry growing up.
Later in life, she married an Italian who is a very good cook, and not very accepting of the canned ham, at least for his own consumption.
So La Via doesn’t have SPAM on a regular basis, maybe six months or more between eatings. But she came up with a sandwich 15 or 20 years ago that she swears by.
The best kind of bread is pumpernickel, spread with a little bit of mayo, “not gobs of it,” La Via instructs. No mustard, just mayo.
Add three for four sauteed, better known as fried, slices of SPAM. “One thickness only — a quarter of an inch would probably do it.”
Top with a generous slice of cheese. “It really should be cheddar, and it really should be as sharp as possible.” Then add slices of dill pickle.
“And that is it,” she says. “For some reason, that cheese ... somehow the combo is excellent. People have been surprised.”
Behne reports the three most popular ways of eating SPAM on the U.S. mainland are with eggs, as SPAMburgers and in mac ’n’ cheese.
In Hawaii, the world’s No. 1 market, SPAM “Musubi” is ubiquitous in convenience stores. It’s a slice of grilled SPAM atop of a block of rice and bound with a strip of seaweed, or nori.
SPAM is a favorite all over the Pacific Rim, most likely arising from wartime conditions when refrigeration was scarce and shelf-stable products were highly desirable. SPAM is regarded as a luxury good in Southeast Asia and that a gift pack would be considered an appropriate wedding present, according to Hormel.
La Via is in the proud-to-be-a-SPAM-eater clan. Her husband even gave her a sweatshirt with SPAM emblazoned on the front for a Christmas present one year. “That is so cool!” her daughter exclaimed when seeing it for the first time.
As for SPAM shunners, “you don’t have to eat it, more for me,” La Via jokes.
“I think SPAM has been around long enough it can have that attitude.”