Long before there was spam in your inbox, there was SPAM on your plate. The little blue and yellow tin shelters the sturdy oblong of pork and ham that was invented in 1937 by Jay Hormel as a way for his family’s meat-packing business to use the pork shoulder meat that didn’t make the cut, so to speak, for the company’s line of packaged products. It became a national icon during World War Two, when it was included in aid packages for war refugees and on mess hall menus at military bases around the world. When Monty Python’s chorus of Vikings sang its praises in the 1970’s, it became enshrined in popular culture.
Now, SPAM is coming to this month’s North Carolina Mountain State Fair at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center in Fletcher, which will host a regional Great American SPAM Championship, one of 40 such events being held at state fairs around the country.
“It’s the second time we’ve had the SPAM event,” says Tamara Crain, who coordinates entries for all of the fair’s competitions and exhibits. As of mid-August, Tamara hadn’t received any entries yet but was hopeful the slots would fill up by the time the fairgrounds open on September 5th. The SPAM Championship is scheduled for the next day in the Davis Arena, in between the clogging championship and a children’s soap carving workshop. “The rules are pretty simple,” Tamara says. “Your recipe has to use at least one can of SPAM, and you can use no more than ten ingredients. Hormel tells the judges to give 40 percent to taste appeal, 30 to appearance and 30 to how original the recipe is.” Whoever is crowned SPAM King or Queen gets a shot at attending the biggest SPAM event of all, which is the SPAM Jam in Hormel’s hometown of Austin, Minnesota next July.
The winning recipes during the competition’s seven years have been original, indeed. At the Ag Center in 2005, Logan Lueck of Asheville, who was nine years old at the time, came up with a winning recipe for E’SPAMcargot, which he made from pasta shells turned upside down, with tails and heads made from SPAM and eyes made from corn. Even more impressive, Logan’s seven-year-old brother Evan won the next year with his recipe for Easy SPAMbled Egg Nests, which were scrambled eggs and SPAM baked in dough cups formed from crescent rolls. “SPAM was something I grew up with, and I wondered if the boys would take to it,” says Evan and Logan’s mother Sharon, who hastened to add that SPAM was only occasionally on the family’s regular menu. “They actually liked it, and when we saw the advertisement for the championship, Logan wanted to give it a try. Both boys like to cook. Logan’s in Boy Scouts now and does a lot of the cooking when the troop’s out camping.”
The boys’ younger brother and sister — six and two, respectively — have yet to demonstrate a knack for SPAM cooking. Among other winning recipes of past years from around the country are Coconut Yam CRISPAMs, SPAMmy Apple Cheddar Corn Bread, SPAM Stuffed Manicotti, SPAM and Sauerkraut Rollups, and Green Tomato SPAM Fritters. There are SPAM tamales, pizzas with SPAM, and something called a Pull-Apart SPAM Appetizer, which was a big winner at the state fair in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The unsung hero of SPAM, however, is Ken. His last name has been lost to history, but it was Ken who won a $100 prize from Jay Hormel in 1937 for coming up with a name for the stuff. Ken never explained how he arrived at SPAM, but SPAM folklore claims the name is a mash-up of “spiced ham.” The Hormel people take a dim view of this theory. “SPAM has come to mean so much more than simply spiced ham,” they say, rather huffily, on the official SPAM website, whose legal notice is probably the only one in the world that mentions singing Vikings. “The term ‘spiced ham’ simply doesn’t paint the right picture of what SPAM really is,” they declare.
What it really is, besides bits of pork and ham, is sugar, water, potato starch and dash of sodium nitrite to preserve SPAM’s cheery pink color. As the people who’ve bought the six million cans of SPAM since 1937 know, it can keep for years in its vacuum packed can. “It’s like meat with a pause button,” as one SPAM fan described it. SPAM has been an international phenomenon since it traveled overseas with the troops, and there are now SPAM factories in Denmark, the Philippines and South Korea in addition to the two United States plants in Minnesota and in Fremont, Nebraska.
Being famous has its drawbacks, though, starting with the commonly used term for unwanted email besmirching the hallowed aura of SPAM, some of it far from the family values to which the real stuff is attached. “If you have or do receive unsolicited commercial email with this header ID,” Hormel wants you to know, “please understand it didn’t come from us.”