Any consumer product in any category that remains viable for 80 years deserves the appellation “icon.”
The roster of formerly popular products that have disappeared from American households since the 1930s is a lengthy one. The list of survivors is much shorter, but quite impressive: Jell-O, Bisquick, Wheaties, Life Savers, Oreos, Cracker Jacks and Twinkies.
Add one more name to that list: SPAM.
Despite its longevity — and popularity — few people are openly effusive about this American icon. Even those intrepid consumers who regularly buy it and eat it rarely sign its praises.
That’s left up to Monty Python, the British comedy troupe whose hit Broadway play “Spamalot” included such signature show tunes as, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” as well as Sir Can-A-Lot, SPAM’s official spokescharacter.
For multi-millions of people across the decades, a day without SPAM just doesn’t qualify as being all that bright.
So on the occasion of SPAM’s 80th year of production — and consumption, let’s acknowledge — here are some fun facts about this legendary lunchmeat:
The name. Most people assume that SPAM is short for “spiced ham.” But if you believe the fine folks at the SPAM Museum, asking how SPAM got its name is “one of the questions that plague man,” like, “Is there intelligent life beyond Earth?”
According to the museum curators, “The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives. And probably Nostradamus.” According to legend, the name was suggested by Ken Daigneau, the brother of a Hormel executive, who won a naming contest when the product was introduced in 1937 — as well as a prize of one hundred bucks. Of course, back in the Great Depression that was enough to buy a brand-new car, with cash left over to make a down payment on a three-bedroom house.
The formula. The actual ingredients inside that bright blue can have been the stuff of urban legends. Hormel claims that SPAM is merely ham and pork shoulder meat, along with salt, water, sugar, potato starch and nitrites — basically the same as hot dogs, although that only enhances, not dispels, urban legends about the (allegedly) horrific by-products dumped into those industrial grinders like some secret witch’s brew.
The Russian connection. No, this has nothing to do with Vladimir Putin. But SPAM is linked to crucial events that occurred during World War II. Although it’s well-known that U.S. troops wolfed down more than 100 million pounds of SPAM during the war, the reality is that the Red Army also depended on the canned meat to sustain its soldiers as they advanced on Nazi Germany during 1944 and 1945. As the late Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev once stated, “Without SPAM, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army,” or as others have paraphrased, “Ivan don’t live on borscht alone.”
The brand expansion. The variations of SPAM are extensive, including the Classic product (of course), plus SPAM with Bacon, Oven-Roasted Turkey, Hickory Smoke, Hot and Spicy, Jalapeño, Teriyaki, Black Pepper, Chorizo and Portuguese Sausage. And once upon a time, Hormel produced a Kosher SPAM, known as Loof (and you thought the original was a whacky name), which was distributed as field rations by the Israeli military. Despite a formulation that substituted chicken or beef for the obviously inappropriate pork shoulders and ham, Loof was turfed out in 2008.
Approximately 44,000 cans (33,000 pounds) of SPAM, are produced every hour of every day around the world, quoting from the manufacturer’s marketing data, and consumed in more than 40 countries.
Gotta confess: I’m responsible for more than a couple of those cans myself, having become a fan of the mock sushi SPAM-rice-and-seaweed wraps popular across much of Polynesia.
I haven’t gotten around to sampling the Jalapeño or Chorizo varieties yet.
But that’s what the next 80 years are for.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.