This article and cartoon were originally published in Nor’Westing, a yachting magazine. It is obviously dated—it refers to celebrities in ads that live on only in the memories of a few, possibly very few. But the attitude toward Spam is timeless. And I believe that no one else has done a Burkian analysis of perceptions of Spam. So I’ve resurrected it from my archives to share with you.
And, I feel compelled to mention one fact that is NOT in the article: Spam is very much a part of Hawaii’s food legacy. According to HAWAI’I’S SPAM COOKBOOK, they consume up to 3 ½ times more Spam than any other state. The author refers to it as Hawaii’s soul food. Don’t poke fun unless you’ve tried some of her recipes: Sweet-Sour Tofu and Spam, Spam stuffed Hasu, Spam and Daikon, Eggplant and Spam Tempura, and Spam McLolly to name but a few.
Pssst—Wanna Buy Some Spam?
Boaters often have to rely on canned food to see them through periods of time when they can’t get to a grocer or the fish aren’t biting or a red tide prohibits the taking of shellfish. Everyone has their favorites. Do you want to know what mine is? Here, let me whisper it in your ear. . . .
In today’s health conscious society, no one wants to admit that they actually like Spam. Spam lovers don’t dare put it in their shopping carts in the market–someone might see them. They have been reduced to using the Spam black market, street corner venders who sell cases of it in unmarked boxes out of the trunks of their cars.
“Pssst—wanna buy some Spam?”
“Not so loud. What’s the price?”
“I can make you a real deal, a great price on a twelve pack low sodium Spam.”
“Yeah, it’s new on the market. Just like the real thing only less salt.”
“Sorry. I only buy Spam Classic.”
I was at an elegant dinner party eating dishes whose names I couldn’t pronounce or spell. Everyone was dressed up and taking care to use the right fork. Then somehow the subject of foods one liked as a child came up and everyone suddenly started making confessions:
“I’ve always liked Hostess chocolate cupcakes, ever since I was a kid.”
“Me too, and I’ve never understood all the bad press given Twinkies.”
“Well, I hate to admit it but…I still like marshmallows. Although they aren’t like they used to be when they were packaged in boxes with layers separated by waxpaper.”
“Oh, I remember that.”
“And what about those little wax things with the pop in them?”
“Oh, yeah. Those were great.”
“And what about Spam” I said. “Remember how good it used to taste on camping trips?”
Suddenly I felt like E.F. Hutton. It was so quiet you could hear the juice dripping off the clam shells in the bouillabaisse.
“What about Spam?” I repeated.
“Yuk, Spam. No one eats Spam anymore.”
“No one,” a chorus of voices agreed.
I could have informed them that 30 percent of all American households admit to being regular Spam eaters, but apparently I was with the 70 percent that didn’t, so I kept my mouth shut. But I was hurt. After all, they had admitted eating Twinkies, a product rumored to have a 30 year shelf life.
Spam has at various times been referred to as ‘mystery meat,’ ‘ham that didn’t pass the physical,’ and ‘joke meat in a can.’ Obviously there is no such thing as a Spam fillet, but the ingredients are right there on the can, in small print, but still readable: “chopped pork shoulder meat with ham meat added and salt, water, sugar, sodium nitrite.” It may not be low cholesterol, but the food products that make up Spam are both recognizable and pronounceable. And the list of ingredients proves that Spam is NOT the fifth food group as some people claim.
Kenneth Burke, philosopher and scholar, maintains that our perceptions of reality are compiled accumulatively. For instance, an individual doesn’t ‘see’ the same dog that everyone else ‘sees,’ because our perception of ‘dog’ is influenced by such things as our first experience with a dog, our ideal dog, and the associations we have with the concept of ‘dog.’ Looked at in this light, one comes to better understand the reasons for the prejudice some have against Spam.
If your first association with Spam was the aroma of sizzling Spam in a pan, then you probably did not develop an aversion to it as a youngster. If, however, your first experience of Spam was seeing a parent open the can, then you probably don’t eat it today. The younger the person the stronger the reaction against the gelatinous substance that oozes forth as the can opens up. Most children consider it something that should be wiped up with a Kleenex. In fact, it takes a mature adult to accept that this protective substance is really supposed to be in the can.
Secondly, when we think of the ideal meat product, Spam doesn’t get a fair shake. Our ideal is influenced by our knowledge of fresh meat. We know that fresh meat is not baby bottom pink. Nor is it soft and yielding like solidified tapioca. While Spam may be fresh, it is NOT fresh meat.
In all fairness, Spam should not be held to the same standards as fresh meat; rather, it should be compared to other canned items such as the ever popular tuna fish or ham. In that light we see that Spam is more imaginative and creative than its competitors. Hormel did not just find a fish or an animal and can it; they developed a special recipe that combined color and texture in a new and exciting way. Consumers should consider that when passing judgment on Spam.
Finally, we have our associations with the product. For example, when you think of beef, you also think of cows, cowboys, branding irons, rustlers, etc. So what do you think of when you think of Spam? To most people, Spam is to meat what the Nauga is to Naugahyde. But there are other images: soldiers on the march, campers around fires, school lunches – “Anyone trade me a tuna fish on whole wheat for a Spam on white?” But the image that comes to my mind is of Hormel & Company spewing out 450 Spam cans a minute–clunk, clunk, clunk. How can 110 million cans a year be wrong?
Of course even I have wondered about some of the recipes on the Spam container. For instance, isn’t Spam Quiche almost a contradiction in terms? Spam lovers don’t claim that Spam is a gourmet item. One has Spamwiches and Spam and eggs but not steamed Spam with garlic raspberry sauce or Spam with capers and artichoke hearts. Then again, quiche is supposedly passe, so perhaps it’s all right. But does anyone roast a Spam punctured with whole cloves like the picture on the can depicts?
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that most people object to Spam on principle. Spam isn’t modern, it isn’t ‘lite,’ it isn’t rad. You don’t see fashionable young people on television ads whoofing down Spamburgers or Spam nuggets. Weight Watchers hasn’t come up with a Candlelight Spam dinner. And there are no elegantly dressed women telling us how refreshing and relaxing Spam snacks in the afternoon can be.
What Spam needs is an image facelift. Hormel & Company has already captured 30 percent of the market, now they should try for the other 70 percent with some upbeat, ‘now’ ads. Picture Michael Jackson snapping open a can of Spam with that white glove. Picture Bruce Willis crooning the blues to a clove punctured Spam. Picture Michael J. Fox running to the store for a can of Spam for the girl next door.
Of course the can’s a bit small to put a picture of some athlete on it. And Spam lovers don’t want to see ‘new’ or ‘improved’ on the can–they like it the way it is, the way it always has been. Still, with the right ad campaign Hormel could improve Spam’s image and increase sales. And they owe it to those of us who have faithfully purchased their products in plain brown paper bags ever since American became health conscious.