December 13, 2004
A Seasonal Song of Spam
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
MN -- My international ruminations turned to Spam this week.
That’s right, the oversalted, dripping with fat, made in Minnesota,
pink hunk of spiced pork meat that somehow became a great food icon in
our United States.
With the scents of eggnog and peppermint now in the air, my attention
couldn’t help but turn this week from weighty matters to matters
that make me weighty, i.e. food. (And shopping. At the Galleria Mall,
I heard the “Jingle Bells” muzak playing and found myself
softly singing “Spend-spend-spend, spend-spend-spend, spending
all the way…”)
With the sentiments of the season now upon us, I started to think, why
couldn’t we find evidence of our commonality and influence across
borders in the commonest of things. And the humblest of foods. Our own
Right on cue, two news items broke last week, that Minnesota’s “special
parts of animal meat” (“spiced ham” is how the company
phrases it) is going international. Thanks to America’s declining
reputation in Europe, Hormel is now marketing Spam in Britain as a British
food. And in the Philippines, already one of Spam’s biggest overseas
markets, the company has just opened several “Spam Jam Cafés,” with
Spam burgers on offer.
I did a little research into Spam as a global phenomenon. Turns out the
company has sold more than six billion of the blue 12-ounce cans since
1937, when the concoction was invented over in Austin.
The stuff is produced in three foreign countries (Denmark, Korea, and
the Philippines), sold directly in 41 countries, and is trademarked in
more than 100. There are only 193 sovereign countries in the world, so
we are talking one truly global product here. Software and Spam, covering
But what truly hit me about Spam, upon reflection, was how this quintessentially
American food, gastronomically crude yet culturally beloved, widely yet
lovingly ridiculed, reminded me of many similar types of foods I’ve
run across while living in other countries.
Every country, it seems, has a special corner of its cultural pantry
stocked with weirdo dishes that everybody loves to hate. Or, more precisely,
with foods that everyone in that country professes to love – while
loving even more the fact that everyone else in the world seems shocked
-- shocked! --that the people of said nation could actually eat anything
so awful, so vile.
Take for example the dish called natto, in Japan.
“Natto” is rotting, excuse me, fermenting soybeans. It looks like
a pile of something you left in the refrigerator last week, and tastes
like it too. A handful-sized serving is eaten with a dash of hot yellow
mustard. But the really interesting thing about natto is that it has
decomposed to precisely the point where long sagging strings of white
mucus stretch from the dish to the chopsticks you are using to take in
a brave mouthful of the stuff.
This spectacle greatly increases the mirth of one’s Japanese hosts,
who have served you natto for the pleasure of watching you eat it for
the first time.
In Scotland, you have haggis, which is ground sheep lungs, heart, liver,
mutton suet, and oatmeal all mixed together and served in a lamb’s
stomach. The locals insist they love it. Most definitely they love the
deer-in-the-headlight looks that cross the face of visitors when being
served haggis the first time. Ditto, in England, being served blood sausages
But for sheer boldness of effect, nothing in my experience beats durian,
the horrendously malodorous fruit that’s native to Singapore and
Malaysia. The smell is so bad and so easily permeates the atmosphere
that all throughout Southeast Asia, hotels post at their front doorways
the universal symbol of a circle with a red slash through the middle,
crossing out a durian fruit.
To say the smell is similar to dirty socks would be a gentle euphemism.
Normally, anything with such a smell is immediately taken outside, burned
at the dump, or flushed. And yet, as with natto in Japan and haggis in
Scotland, the locals say they love the stuff. (Did someone say lutefisk?)
Durian is so omnipresent in Singapore and Malaysia, so talked about and
so joked about and so lovingly reviled -- with the clear implication
being that only a great nation could embrace so cruel-smelling a food
-- one wonders why they don’t just put a durian on their national
Now Spam is no durian, and I like our flag just the way it is. Yet it
feels rousing and patriotic to sing of Spam, of everlasting love for
our very own salt-and-pork crud, so easy on the palate, so hard on the
arteries. I ate Spam sandwiches as a kid, so I’m a fan forever.
And if more people around the world intensely disliked it, I would like
it even more.
Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report