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“Spam is the ultimate loner food,” said the chef Esther Choi, who lives in a one-bedroom by herself in New York City. Working late hours to keep the lights on at all of her restaurants, Ms. Yoo and two Mŏkbar locations (with one more on the way), Choi doesn’t get to cook meals at home for herself very often. But when she does, she turns to the simple things: fried Spam, eggs, and Hetbahn, a single serving of Korean microwavable rice. “Even though I’m a chef and I can make anything in the world,” she said, “when I’m by myself, those are the things I want to eat.”
This is a common fugue for many Asian Americans: Spam, eggs, and rice. The nostalgic valances that stem from that salty, pink block of luncheon meat go way back for some of us, not least because it represents a very specific experience: what it was like growing up in America with immigrant parents. Choi remembers, for instance, only eating Spam when her mom and dad were out for the night, usually at work. On such evenings, she and her sister were in charge of feeding themselves and their younger brother. Spam was an obvious choice, not least because it was so easy to heat: Just slice the block into thin rectangles and sear in a dry pan until crispy on both sides, like bacon. (No oil needed. There’s plenty of fat in the product itself.)
The thing is, you don’t need to cook Spam (though it’s certainly the best way to eat it). The canned meat is completely shelf-stable, thanks to salt, sugar, and one preservative, sodium nitrite. As for the other ingredients, contrary to popular belief, there really aren’t that many more. According to the “Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America,” Jay Hormel invented Spam (an alleged portmanteau of “spiced ham”) in 1937 “as a way to peddle the then-unprofitable pork shoulder.”
So there’s the pork, of course, which is ground, plus ham and water. And in 2001, potato starch was added to bind the mixture and to prevent the characteristic layer of gelatin that sat on top of the can for decades until then. For years Hormel Foods Corporation has been fighting the maligned reputation that its star product is somehow “mystery meat” when really it’s just six ingredients plus water. (Spam’s latest campaign is “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve fried it.”) As its entry in the “Oxford Encyclopedia” states, in the very second sentence at that: “Spam is popular in Hawaii and Guam and among many families in the American heartland but is viewed by many others as the symbol of everything that is wrong with American processed food.”
For Korean-American multidisciplinary artist Jaime Sunwoo, whose play “Specially Processed American Me” (aka S.P.A.M.) is set to premiere in late 2021 to early 2022, there’s a glaring reason why Spam is so synonymous with stigma. “It’s a food that many Americans associate with hardship, poverty, and army rations,” she said. “So after the war, they just got really sick of eating it. That’s why you get sketches like “Monty Python“ and the word for email you don’t want.”
During World War II, the United States Army received 150 million pounds of pork luncheon meat, or what soldiers jokingly called “ham that didn’t pass its physical,” “meat loaf without basic training,” and “the real reason war was hell.” Even as Americans grew tired of eating it, Spam sales increased after the war. “The overwhelming success of Spam is what drove this collective intolerance to it,” Sunwoo said. It’s no wonder that the Hormel product is now beloved in places where U.S. soldiers were stationed, like Guam, Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.
For Sunwoo, “Specially Processed” is an opportunity to explore this disjuncture between American and Korean perceptions of Spam, what she calls “one of America’s most misunderstood foods.” “Through this project, I learned about my relatives from North Korea for the first time,” she said. “My dad was born in Pyongyang, and my maternal grandmother in Kaesong. Spam kind of gave me permission to collect a more formal oral history. I asked my grandma about her experiences eating Spam during the Korean War. For her, it was like mana from the heavens. She was so hungry, and to have that was the most delicious thing.” But whenever Sunwoo’s grandmother (now 93 years old and residing in Washington State) takes a bite of Spam, there’s something missing. It doesn’t taste as great. “There are so many other things to eat now,” Grandma Chongyol said. “So why would I eat Spam?”
Why do people eat Spam? This query alone garners 177 million search results on Google. First of all, a lot of easy cooking comes from it. The first dish Sunwoo ever learned to cook was her mother’s Spam fried rice, confettied with freezer-aisle peas, carrots, and corn and topped with a fried egg. Second of all, it’s delicious (if you know, you know). When fried in a skillet, Spam is a coalescence of salty, sweet, crispy, and chewy. When braised, such as in a seething budae jjigae, it mellows out and becomes supple, kimchi-stained. In musubi, it’s the ideal counterpoint, both in flavor and in texture, to the sticky rice and crunchy nori.
For many Asian Americans, eating Spam in America — wonderful though it is — can sometimes feel like an othering experience, bringing with it all of its complicated cultural associations. The greatest irony might be that the Minnesota-based Hormel product is an American foodstuff, born and bred. But when you’re 10, you don’t have the words yet to explain to your classmates the social and historical nuances of why Spam has a completely different reputation in your parents’ home country than it does in the States, and that, as an Asian American, it has the ability to transport you home wherever you are in the world. As Sunwoo said, “The reason we gravitate toward Spam so strongly is because we only eat it at home.” Home food is inherently more intimate, more private, and thus has more potential to be intricately riddled with secrecy, even shame.
When Bettina Makalintal, a food and culture writer at VICE, moved from the Philippines to Philadelphia at age 5, it took her a while to eat Spam publicly. But in the privacy of her home? “It always felt like a treat,” she said. “If my mom wanted to make something that was a little easier, a little less labor-intensive, it would be: rice, eggs, and canned meat. These were the times that we had Spam.” For Makalintal, the combination made sense: breakfast for dinner. Who wouldn’t want that? “In retrospect, I recognize that those were our bare-minimum meals,” she said, “something I ate at home and enjoyed. But in secret. I had a lot of white friends growing up in P.A. and none of them ate it. Or if they did, they didn’t talk about it. So it was something I privately enjoyed and didn’t talk about until I was, I don’t know, 19 or 20. That’s when I realized Spam was tied not just to Filipino culture, but also to other Asian cultures.”
This discovery of Spam’s ubiquity in other Asian-American households, including the shared stigma, was a turning point for Makalintal. By embracing Spam fully, she was able to reclaim not just one of her favorite childhood foods, but also parts of her identity. “I realized at that point in my life what Filipino-American food meant to me, i.e., Spam is something I really like, so why am I afraid to talk about that? Ever since then, I was more publicly appreciative of my Spam eating.”
good morning pic.twitter.com/FKIwo5uVKA
— bettina makalintal (@bettinamak) May 7, 2020
Similarly, for the chef Jenny Dorsey, founder of nonprofit think tank Studio ATAO, Spam was for years something that made sense to cook and eat in the privacy of her home. “It was the non-perishable staple in our house,” she said. Her parents would buy whole cartons of Spam on sale at Costco. “Not only was it cheap and filling, but it also had that salty, porky flavor we loved. So whenever we weren’t able to get fresh pork, my mom would substitute it with Spam. She’d use it as the salt in her cooking, like in a congee. It was a way to save money and be economical, but not feel that you were hard up in any way.”
“Also,” she added, “it’s just so good with rice.” The first things Dorsey stocked up on at the genesis of the COVID pandemic in March were Spam and rice. They’re still in her pantry, all different flavors. “The regular one is best, of course.” With her stash, Dorsey makes a lot of rice dishes like Spam fried rice, kimchi fried rice with Spam, and Spam porridge. There’s a reason that rice, especially unadulterated steamed white rice, is such an ideal partner with the spiced ham product: It’s comfortingly bland, offering moments of relief from the salty, fatty pork. The two were meant for each other. If rice is a balm, then Spam is a stalwart, providing comfort for Dorsey during a time when she needs it most. “It feels nourishing,” she said. “Not just physically nourishing, but mentally nourishing, as well.”
Chef Lucas Sin, who contributed a recipe to “The Ultimate Spam Cookbook“ (a branded release from Hormel that came out this year), remembers developing a taste for spiced ham as a latchkey kid and realizing its potential as an ingredient to cook with. “The more time you’re left alone as a 12-year-old, the more you start developing an awareness of how to prepare these items in a good way,” he said. “Noodles al dente, taken out at just the right moment. A crispy, rendered side of Spam. I remember that being a pivotal moment for me, when I engaged with food for the first time in a thoughtful way. When I realized that, hey, you can be thoughtful about how you’re cooking for yourself.”
Sin suggests the same for adults: Cut those scallions on the bias. Garnish that plate for yourself. If anything, it’s even more important that you pay attention to these details when it’s just you, yourself, and Spam. “My ideal meal,” he said, “on the rare occasion, before I started cooking seriously was Nissin Demae Iccho instant noodles from Hong Kong, some scrambled eggs, and a pan-seared slab of Spam.” The reason it works, he said, is the high gelatin content, not unlike what happens when you smash a burger. While you’re melting that gelatin, getting as much Maillard as you can, the pork crisps up and the salty-sweet flavor of the meat is brought out by that heat. “It’s the perfect product in that way,” he said.
A newfound sense of pride in Spam buoys this younger generation of cooks. For many in the Asian-American diaspora, openly loving the canned meat product means openly loving one’s culture, history, and skin, as well. There’s indelible comfort to be found in knowing that you’re not alone in this shared journey toward self-acceptance.
One of the richest aspects of Sunwoo’s “Specially Processed“ workshops is the “Submit a Story” feature on her website, where participants can hive-mind their own Spam thoughts and recipes, and see their experiences live among a sea of others who have gone through similar things, especially as children of immigrants. In many ways, Spam is what the food critic Soleil Ho defines as assimilation food, or “food that’s made to close the gap between homes: a critical need when one lives in exile.”
As Choi told me at the start of my reporting, as we both headed into what would become the longest exile of our lives: Spam is the ultimate loner food.