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May 11, 2024 28 mins

This 2014 episode covers the invention of the canned meat known as Spam. The Hormel Foods product was invented in the 1930s to make use of a surplus of shoulder meat from pigs, and was an instant hit in the U.S. and abroad.

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Speaker 1 (00:02):
Happy Saturday. This week, we talked about Maria Arosa and
her work on food autonomy at a time when US
policy was making the Philippines artificially dependent on American imports.
One food that we did not mention, which does have
a very important place in Filipino cuisine and culture and
was introduced by the United States. That was spam. A

lot of Spam's introduction into the Philippines happened through the
US Army during and after World War II. At that point,
a lot of Maria Arosa's focus was really on feeding
prisoners of war and civilians that were being held in
internment camp. Trying to get into the history of spam
felt like a sidetrack in that particular moment. But we

do have a whole episode on the Culinary History of Spam,
which talks a bit about how spam became part of
Filipino cuisine. We also have a little correction for it,
which is that we mistakenly ref for Dawaikiki as an island.
It is not. Obviously, it's a city on the island
of O Wahoo. Yeah. Obviously at that moment we're talking
about Hawaii. We are not talking about the Philippines. Also

side note, we recorded the episode on Maria Arosa and
the behind the scenes at this point a couple weeks ago,
at least, I said at that moment, I had not
tried any Filipino spaghetti. That was true at that time.
But my spouse made it for dinner the other night.
We did not have any hot dogs, though, so he
substituted spam and it was very good, delicious, So enjoy.

Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, a production
of iHeartRadio. Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Tracy
Wilson and I'm Holly Frye. Holly, do you remember recently
on our Facebook page and we had that weird influx

of self published ebooks? Yeah, Like suddenly just tons of
posts were showing up of people promoting their published ebooks
that often had nothing to do with history. No, none
of them. And that was the only thing and they
had in common was that none of them were about history.
Otherwise they were by different people, they were posted from
different accounts, they were in different genres. It was very strange.

And because I was wondering, maybe, you know, maybe there
had been some article that had gotten passed around that
was like to promote your ebook post on random people's
Facebook pages. I posted on our Facebook page to say
sort of, hey, listeners, any of you have any idea
why this might be happening. A couple of people really
went out of their way to yell at us and

call us idiots for even asking that question. Most people
kind of shrugged their shoulders virtually about it. A few
people gave us suggestions, were trying to like track down
exactly what was going on, but a couple of people said,
you know what it would be cool is if you
did an episode about spam the food. Not spam like

the unwanted ecommunication, but spam the food. And I can
get behind that because I will loudly and proudly say
I quite enjoy spam. Yeah. Well, and immediately from just
the few facts that I already knew about spam's influence
on various cuisines in the wake of World War Two,
I was like, yeah, let's do that. Yeah, that sounds

actually pretty interesting and awesome. And then that led to
several other people chiming in with interesting tidbits about spam
and history. So that is what we are talking about today.
Thank you, Random people who put their weird ebooks spam
on our Facebook page. Story you it is journey, but
we got to a cool episode idea and I like
sharing the journeys sometimes. Yes, a lot of times people

ask us how we come up with these things. Well
that's an example. So yes, today we were going to
talk about spam's history and how spam played a part
some pretty important historical events, namely World War two and
the Korean War. Yeah, so in case anyone does not know,
spam is made by Hormel Foods. George A. Hormel was

born in eighteen sixty in Buffalo, New York. Now, their
last name was originally pronounced Hormal to rhyme with normal,
and it's not totally clear when Hormel became Hormel, because
we've both been saying Hormel all our lives, and for
the sake of consistency, we're just gonna go with Hormel.
That was definitely what the company was calling itself by

the time spam was invented. So the Hormel family moved
to Toledo, Ohio when George was just six, and he
worked in his father's tannery after school. The Panic of
eighteen seventy three meant that the family found itself needing
additional income, so at the age of twelve, George left
school so that he could spend more time working and

make more money for the family. After a few brief
stints and a couple of other jobs, he wound up
working at his uncle's meat packing business, and he worked
there until he was nineteen, and George continued to work
in different jobs throughout his young adulthood. He was working
as a traveling salesman when he found a meat shop
for sale in Austin, Minnesota, where he was passing through

while he was doing some business in his sales and
he bought this meat shop and he opened it, putting
his experience at his uncle's meat packing operation into practice
and opening his own meat business. Soon he really wanted
the business to be more than just a butcher shop,
so he borrowed some money, found an investor, and established

George A Hormel and Company that George was just GEO
with period after it, and they operated out of an
abandoned creamery. That was in eighteen ninety one, and at
that point he was thirty one years old. All of
the United States' biggest meat packing operations were in Chicago,
and here he was in Austin, Minnesota, hundreds of miles
away from that sort of nexus of industry. And he

was also brand new. He was a small business in
an industry that at that point was completely dominated by
really established, longtime powerhouses. And he also didn't actually have
some of the equipment that he was going to need
to be a large scale meat packer. For example, he
did not have refrigerated railed cars at his disposal. Those

had been around since eighteen seventy eight, but George did
not have any until after the turn of the century.
So George Hermel needed to set himself apart in some way.
Since he couldn't just go heads ahead with all these giant,
established meat packing companies, he decided to focus on two things.
The first was pork, since more of the pig carcass

was used than and many other food animals, and quality,
So when other businesses were cutting their pork products with
filt with fillers, he really stuck as much as he
could just to meat that came from pigs, and the
company incorporated in nineteen oh one, and by nineteen twenty
before they were slaughtering a million hogs each year. George

Hormel's son Jay. He had other sons as well, but
Jay's the one who plays a part in this part
of the story. He was a veteran of World War One,
having served as chief quartermaster in the American Expeditionary Forces.
Jay came back from the war with a sense of
what canned goods could do in terms of feeding an army,
so he encouraged Hormel to look into focusing on canned

meat products. The company's first canned ham came out in
nineteen twenty six. In nineteen twenty nine, George Hormone retired
and Jay took the helm after his father was no
longer part of the business, and at this point Hormel
introduced Dnty Moore beef stew and Hormal chili. Those both
came out in nineteen thirty five. At about the same time,

the Hormale Company recognized that it had a surplus of
shoulder meat from pigs. Now, this wasn't a particularly popular
cut of meat because neatly removing the meat from the
bone was a really time and labor intensive process, and
because a lot of consumers thought that it was inferior
to other cuts of pork like ham, and what the

Hornal company decided to do was to grind up this
shoulder meat along with some ham and add salt water,
a bit of sugar, and some sodium nitrate. That last
ingredient preserves the color of the meat and it also
inhibits bacterial growth. And today's spam also includes potato starch,
but that was not in the original. It was added
later to keep the liquid from seeping out of the

meat and forming a gelatinous layer on top, which I
remember seeing periodically in cans when I was a kid,
and it was indeed kind of gross. Yeah, that was
in the eighties when they made that change. This new
product's name was coined by Kenneth Daganow, who was not
only a Broadway actor but also the brother of a

Horml VP. He won one hundred dollars for his efforts.
It's allegedly a portmanteau of spiced and ham, but the
specifics on that are really not documented, and Hormel claims
that what it really stands for is a closely guarded
secret that makes it sound like it's somehow secretly spelling

out horrible things that could be contained in it. But
the important thing is that spam took the world by storm,
and we're going to talk about that after we have
a quick ad break, and now we'll get to spam
and how it came to dominate the market. Yeah. So

spam made its entry into the market in nineteen thirty seven,
and its launch was accompanied by a huge advertising campaign,
and it builds spam as suitable for every meal and
for snacks. Spam was basically an instant hit, and it
took eighteen percent of the market share for canned ham
in its first year. That is hugely significant. The US

was starting to recover somewhat from the Great Depression, but
overall people were really excited about having access to an inexpensive,
shelf stable source of meat. Plus it's really long shelf
life meant that you could stock up when you had
extra money and you would have like a nice little
go to in your pantry of edibles. Spam also got
an endorsement from George Burns and Gracey Allen on their

radio show There's a Charming Depending on Your Taste, a
print ad for both spam and the show in which
George says to Gracey, Gracey, if a strange man offered
to buy you lunch. What would you say? And then
Gracie replies, spam. I think it's charming, but it is
pretty charge. Basically, everything those two did was charming to meat.

Also on the print ad was the copy cold or
Hot Spam Hits the spot cold bits Spam and vegetable
mold Spam and salad sandwiches, hot Spam and eggs, Spam
and waffles, baked spam spam burgers. A singing radio commercial
also came out in the forties that began and ended
with the word spam, spam, spam, spam. And to look

at it, as I did look at it many times
as I was doing research, it looks a lot like
the Monty Python sketch, but in reality it was sung
to the tune of My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean. Now.
I just wish someone could convince Terry Jones to sing
the spam song in his spam lady voice to my
Bonnie Lies over the Ocean. I bet we could. We'll

start a campaign. World War II really launched spam into
the American patriotic consciousness. US residents were encouraged to give
up beef and premium cuts of other meats so that
they could help the war effort, and spam was a
handy alternative. Yeah. So while people were eating spam out
of necessity towards the end of the Great Depression because

it was cheap and they didn't have a lot of money,
this time it was more of a sacrifice to support
the United States. The Hormale c Company, along with other
meat producers, made specially packaged army versions of spam. These
were basically extremely large spam loaves and olive drab tins.
Then they weren't branded as spam with that distinctive blue

spam label. They contained some extra salt so that they
could withstand the temperature extremes of all the places that
the troops were deployed. There were also some ordinary cans
of spam that were basically bought in a pinch to
try to make ends meat for the men's rations. Hormel
wound up providing at least one hundred million pounds of

spam during World War Two. That's a lot of spam.
It's so much spam. It's a running theme in World
War two soldiers discussions of the war and for the troops,
the word spam actually came to mean any kind of
processed and preserved meat, and it was on the menu
a lot. It's often seemed like it was three meals

a day, every single day. So spam three meals a
day didn't literally mean brand name spam, but processed meat
three meals a day. Yeah, people basically thought of all
of that stuff as spam. It's similar to how all
tissues are Kleenex, and that is a thing that Hormel
tries so hard to come back. Yes. In nineteen sixty six,

when the Hormale Company was celebrating its seventy fifth birthday,
Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in a letter to a retired
Hormale president saying, quote, I ate my share of spam,
along with millions of other soldiers. I'll even confess to
a few unkind remarks about it uttered during the strain
of battle, you understand, But as former commander in chief,

I believe I can still forgive you for your only
sind sending us so much of it, that so much
of it meant that a lot of servicemen swore they
would never touch another can of spam once the war
was over. And while this may have been true at
least temporarily. Many people who had sworn never to touch
another piece of spam up feeling a little nostalgic for it.

Once the war was over, eating spam took on this
patriotic air, and it was bolstered this concept of patriotism
linked to spam by Hormel's advertising campaign, which tied spam
to wholesome values and patriotic spirit, and that advertising plan
went on throughout the fifties. It was also bolstered by

a sixty membered dance troup known as the Hormel Girls,
who toured around in USO fashion after the end of
the war, after getting their start in nineteen forty seven.
I hope we have pictures of those I saw a couple.
I did not find any that we can put in
our blog or anything. God, but there are some that
could be a great Halloween costume. The combination of nostalgia

and patriotism meant that spam's heyday in the US really
ran through the fifties and the sixties. Cookbooks featured spam
as an ingredient in all kinds of dishes, but as
the seventies crept in spam's this popularity started to fade
a bit. On December fifteenth, nineteen seventy the last skit

on that night's episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus was
the infamous Spam sketch, in which a couple goes to
a cafe where they're serving a lot of spam and
then there are vikings who also sing about spam. Then,
on December thirty first, nineteen seventy four's episode of Mash,
Hawkeye and Trapper John save Radar's pet Lamb for being

slaughtered for a feast by sculpting a new one out
of spam. Weird Al Yankovic's Spam Song sung to the
Two Navarims Stand came out in nineteen eighty nine, at
which point the canned meat had really become cemented in
the American consciousness as both a joke and junk food.
People started to think of spam a's mystery meat made
of remnants, the way that hot dogs are reported to be,

even though its ingredients had not changed aside from that
addition of potatoes starch that we talked about earlier, and
today people really kind of think of spam as dated
and cheap, At least most people, yeah, in the United States.
This is not the case in several other parts of
the world. So to talk about spam in other parts

of the world, we need to zip back to World
War II for a minute. In the United States, the
lend Lease Act was passed on March eleventh, nineteen forty one,
and as its name suggests, the Lend Lease Act allowed
the United States to lend or lease supplies and materials
to Allied nations without payment if doing so was quote

vital to the defense of the United States. So this
was a way for the United States to help the
war effort without actually committing troops, which would happen eventually
after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December seventh
of the same year. Through the lend Lease Act, spam
made its way to Russia. In Tikida Krushchev's memoir, speaking

of World War II, he says, quote, there were many
jokes going around in the army, some of them off
color about American spam, but it tasted good. Less without spam,
we wouldn't have been able to feed our army. Spam
also made its way to several other parts of the
world through the Lend Lease Act and through the presence
of American troops during the war, along with other military actions.

So we're going to talk specifically about Hawaii, which at
this point was not yet a state, as well as
the Philippines in South Korea. And in Hawaii, spam's influence
came from two sources. One was the American gis who
were stationed there or who passed through Hawaii on their
way to other parts of the Pacific. The other was
Hawaii's Japanese population. So during World War Two in the

continental United States, the government forced many Japanese Americans into
internment camps. This is absolutely a thing that is on
the list for podcast episode later on. Consequently, spam sometimes
makes an appearance in Japanese American food because it was
one of the foods that was being served in the camps.

But Hawaii was not yet a state, so the United
States government could not really begin interning its citizens. I mean,
you can make an argument that the United States government
shouldn't have been interning its citizens without due process in
the first place. It super did not have that authority
to do in Hawaii. Also, the Japanese population of Hawaii

was just too big to be interned. There were way
too many people of Japanese ancestry. The camps that would
have been required were too large for the islands themselves
to be able to support. There was just no way
that the United States could do in Hawaii what it
was doing in the continental United States. Instead, to combat

this perceived threat from people with Japanese ancestry, restrictions were
placed on the movements and activities of people that were
of Japanese descent in Hawaii. So Japanese Hawaiians were banned
from deep sea fishing, which had been one of the
ways that they primary source their food for the Japanese community.

Because of Hawaii's remote location, it's landscape, and the available
food sources, the easiest protein source for Japanese Hawaiians to
use to replace what they'd lost from deep sea fishing
was spam. Consequently, spam has been incorporated into many Japanese dishes,
and these very based on different ethnic groups who live

in Japan, but in particular, there is a lot of
sort of Hawaiian Japanese spam fusion. There's a yummy restaurant
here in Atlanta that does a yummy spam entree with
gravy and deliciousness, and I absolutely love it. The most
famous example of the spam dishes that they were making

at this time, though, is spam musubi, which is spam
over rice. It's wrapped in nori seaweed, and it's sometimes
erroneously called spam sushi. It does kind of resemble a
sushi role, but musubi is its more accurate name. Today.
Hawaii is of course a state and consumes more spam
than any other state, and the island of Waikiki hosts

an annual spam Jam Let's Go. Thanks to the presence
of gis during World War II and an ongoing military
presence thereafter. Spam also became very popular in Guam and Okinawa.
In Korea and Japan, citizens were really just desperately suffering

during World War Two. As a side note, if you
have not seen the Japanese film Grave of the Fireflies,
as will give you an idea of how desperately hard
things were for Japanese citizens during the war. Canned meats
like spam really saved people's lives and consequently became incorporated
into local cuisines there as well. In South Korea, this

continued during the Korean War. American soldier station there not
considering spam to be particularly valuable or important, we're happy
to use it as trade and to increase goodwill, and
they would also sell it on the black market later
on and during the Korean War, the United States Armies
Postal Exchange or PX was often the only place that

people could get meat. Spam was really what was available,
and since people couldn't afford to buy it necessarily from
the PX, it really came to be considered a luxury.
It's an ingredient and a dish called boudet jigay, which
I hope I am pronouncing correctly, which is also called
military stew, and that's basically a thick stew that also

includes Korean ingredients like kimchi. A fried slab of pork
called puyuk was also part of Korean cuisine before the
introduction of spam, and spam became a replacement for pork
in that dish when people couldn't get a hold of
regular pork. So spam is undoubtedly an economy class food
in the United States, but it's a little more expensive

in Korea, and this association with scarcity and expense from
earlier times means that today it's frequently given as a
really high class gift. Often this is part of a
really elaborate gift box that includes other foods. Korea is
consequently the world's second largest consumer of spam after the
United States, and spam similarly became popular in the Philippines

as an after effect of US military presence. Today, in
the Philippines, it's often purchased outside of the country by
people who are traveling for pleasure or business, and then
brought home with them as traditional homecoming gifts. This means
a lot of times if you're in duty free shops
at airports that cater to a lot of Filipino travelers,

there will be spam in the duty free shop. And
spam is treated in the Philippines on both the black
and the gray markets, and there are actually nine different
legitimately available varieties of spam there. There is even a
Turkey version for the nation's Muslim pops. Do I wonder
what that tastes like? I also wonder what that tastes like.
The reason that there is a black market and a

gray market for spam is that there are some restrictions
on imports in Philippines, which means there's more demand for
spam than is actually allowed to be imported, and when
you look at the numbers of the number of cans
sold versus the number of people allowed to sell it,
it just doesn't add up. There is additional spam coming

from somewhere. So there's a legitimate argument to be made
here that all of these examples are examples of undo
American influence on other cultures. But in the case of
spam in particular, local cuisines have really taken spam and
then absorbed it and made it into something that is

uniquely their own, whereas in the United States people were
usually basically using spam as a substitute for other meat
rather than making something new and uniquely spam out of it.
And today spam is distributed in more than fifty countries
and it's trademarked in more than one hundred. There are
actually two spam cans in the permanent collection at the

Smithsonian in the Division of the History of Technology. One
was the original nineteen thirty seven can, which had to
be opened using a key, and the other is a
more modern luncheon meat can which was introduced in nineteen
ninety seven, which I think has the poll tab style
and the look of the label for spam has stayed
basically the same all this time. Spam was also served

at a breakfast at the opening of a World War
II exhibition at the National Museum of American History. And
to circle back a little bit to Spam's manufacturer, Hormel
is still a majority owned by family, but it's no
longer really family run. Family still owns it, but other
professionals of running things are in charge of the company.
I also in this episode had a whole rather lengthy

section about labor history at the Hormail Company, which has
some actually very interesting twists and turns and contradictions. There
were parts of the company's history that were really revolutionary
in terms of labor relations, and then there are other
parts of the company's history in which there were really
contentious and heated strikes, and then in one case a

strange autoimmune disease that cropped up at one of its
meat suppliers. But it's just the whole long series of things.
And then as I, you know, went through this outline
to edit it, it all seemed extremely ancillary to the
story of spam, So I don't think we will have

a whole episode on the history of labor relations at
the Hornmale Company. But if you aren't interested in such
a thing, I will put the links to my sources
on that in our show notes so you can check
them out for yourself. I most of my research for
this sort of fell on either side of a weekend,

and the Friday part I kept being like, maybe I
should go get some spam and eat it, because I don't.
I'm not sure I've ever eaten spam. I'm sure I
did at some point as a child. I have it
in our three Yeah, I know, I know I've had
chit beefon toast. That's I know for sure. That's not
the same at all. No, but is it is another
kind of military joke food. We definitely have spam in

our three day emergency kit, you know, in case there's
some kind of disaster. Yeah. So that was sort of Friday,
and then on Monday I had these resources that had
all of these spam recipes and I kept being like,
that sounds disgusting, Like the ones that were, you know,
that the military stew and the spam musubie like that

sounded really interesting to me. But then there are ones
that were American foods that were made with spam, and
I was like, that's the grossest thing that I've ever
heard of. I'm not throwing any shade to spam, but man,
people have put together some gross sounding recipes. Yeah, that's
not one face. There are lots of non spam grocery recipes. Okay,
one of them was fake Escargo and I'm just gonna
leave it. It's like Spam's Halloween costume. I don't even know

what that is. Yeah. I like escargo, and the idea
of using spam to make a fake Escargo really grossed
me out. Thanks so much for joining us on this Saturday.
Since this episode is out of the archive, if you
heard an email address or a Facebook RL or something

similar over the course of the show, that could be
obsolete now. Our current email address is History Podcast at
iHeartRadio dot com. You can find us all over social
media at missed in History, and you can subscribe to
our show on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, the iHeartRadio app,
and wherever else you listen to podcasts. Stuff you missed

in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio. For more
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Tracy V. Wilson

Tracy V. Wilson

Holly Frey

Holly Frey

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