A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's really in Spam?

May 1, 1998

Dear Cecil:

We've been having a heated discussion in the office, and we need to know how Spam luncheon meat is really made. Also, how come they never released a chicken or turkey version (i.e., Spurkey or Spicken)? Finally, what is Monty Python's true relationship with Spam?

Cecil replies:

In the interest of thoroughness I thought that somebody here at Dopecorp should actually eat some Spam before we wrote about it. You'd think I was asking these guys to throw themselves on a grenade. "Cecil, I ate a damn Circus Peanut," wailed my assistant Jane. "I did laundry. Hell, I even sniffed out sperm trees. This is where I draw the line." Little Ed was likewise unwilling, the pup. So it was up to me.

I bought a tin and popped it open, fully expecting to be bowled over by who knows what awful aroma. Didn't happen. The smell was … surprisingly mild. Moreover, the stuff was edible, if salty. Granted, I ate Circus Peanuts without ill effects, and I've had a couple of airline meals that I considered tasty, so maybe I just have a high threshold of disgust. Still, when I see the reaction some people have to this stuff — come on, folks, get a grip. Our ancestors ate meat they'd just killed with a rock. What's so bad about Spam?

What does make you a bit queasy is the nutritional labeling on the side of the can. A single serving — two thin slices — contains 30 percent of your daily saturated-fat quota, 31 percent of your sodium, and 13 percent of your cholesterol. If people ate Spam exclusively we'd solve the Social Security crisis in a generation. Nobody would live long enough to collect.

On to your questions. The common assumption is that Spam is made of stuff even pigs don't like to admit they've got. Not so, says a spokeswoman for Hormel Foods, which manufactures Spam. It contains a mixture of ham and chopped pork shoulder. (Ham is the pig's thigh; pork is everything else.) Ham is Hormel's top-of-the-line product, and Spam was created in 1937 partly to use up what was left of the pig after the ham had been removed. But only the wholesome parts.

The name Spam, dreamed up by the actor brother of a Hormel vice president, is short for "spiced ham." (Cute story: Said brother supposedly had this brainstorm at a name-the-product party, in which you had to contribute a possible name in order to get a drink. It took a few rounds, so nobody is sure whether the guy was inspired or just drunk.) Since Hormel is in Austin, Minnesota, these are Minnesota spices: sugar and salt.

As for what Monty Python saw in Spam, one supposes they were celebrating the ineffable, I dunno, pinkness of it all. (The Brits, like so many others, had been introduced to Spam during World War II.) Their famous Spam sketch, in which the dialogue is periodically drowned out by the chorus "Spam, Spam, Spam," was the inspiration for the Internet term "Spam," meaning the junk E-mail that now floods the net. Presumably a similar sort of artistic impulse animates the annual Spam sculpture contest as well as a Web site for users' Spam haikus (http://web.mit.edu/jync/www/spam/). Samples from the more than 19,000 currently on file:

The color of Spam
Is natural as the sky:
A block of sunrise

Pink tender morsel
Glistening with salty gel
What the hell is it?

Old man seeks doctor
"I eat Spam daily," he says

Pink beefy temptress
I can no longer remain

Thanks to aggressive marketing, worldwide Spam sales have grown substantially over the past few years, with well over 150 million cans sold annually. Previously, Hormel marketers concede, people thought of Spam as something you kept in the basement in case the refrigerator went out during a nuclear war. To change this perception, Hormel boss Joel Johnson promoted concepts such as the Spamburger, sold Spam merchandise (e.g., Spam-can earrings — check 'em out at http://www.spamgift.com/), and even made a concession to the current interest in not dying young by introducing a low- (well, lower-) fat Spam. Which brings us to your question about chicken Spam: they do make it, sort of — chicken is one of the things that go into the aforementioned low-fat Spam, known as Spam Lite. Some may find the taste a little funkier than that of the regular version. But what the heck, it's still pink.

The secret of Spam

Dear Cecil:

Regarding Spam, is it true, as travel writer Paul Theroux claims, that the people of the South Pacific love their Spam because it tastes so much like … people?

Marketing Spam must present some unique challenges. Imagine the conversation in the boardroom:

Spam product manager #1: I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Spam is hugely popular among the people of the South Pacific. The bad news is that, according to the famous travel writer Paul Theroux, the islanders dig it because they're ex-cannibals and they think Spam tastes like human flesh.

Spam product manager #2: Hmm. Is this a problem … or an opportunity?

Let's start with the facts, then segue to the rumors. Spam is one of the favorite foods of Pacific islanders, including Hawaiians, who consume it in vast quantities and consider it a delicacy. This offends the upper-middle-class sensibilities of some writers, who consider Spam emblematic of all that is vile about western culture. For example, in The Island of the Colorblind (1996), Oliver Sacks writes about the fare served during his visit to the island of Pingelap:

We were all revolted by the Spam which appeared with each meal — invariably fried; why, I wondered, should Pingelapese eat this filthy stuff when their own basic diet was both healthy and delicious? … How was it that not only the Pingelapese, but all the peoples of the Pacific, seemingly, could fall so helplessly, so voraciously, on this stuff, despite its intolerable cost to their budgets and their health? I was not the first to puzzle about this; later, when I came to read Paul Theroux's book The Happy Isles of Oceania, I found his hypothesis about this universal Spam mania.

Turning to Theroux's Happy Isles (1992), we find the following:

It was a theory of mine that former cannibals of Oceania now feasted on Spam because Spam came the nearest to approximating the porky taste of human flesh. ‘Long pig’ as they called a cooked human being in much of Melanesia. It was a fact that the people-eaters of the Pacific had all evolved, or perhaps degenerated, into Spam-eaters. And in the absence of Spam they settled for corned beef, which also had a corpsy flavor.

Nowhere does Sacks say he actually believes Theroux's theory, and it seems clear enough that the often peevish Theroux is exercising his tongue-in-cheek … eh, not the best choice of words. His ironic sense of humor. So far I haven't been able to get him on the phone to confirm this, but what's he going to say?

  1. Yes, it was a joke.
  2. No, it wasn't a joke. I have personal knowledge that human flesh tastes like pork and corned beef.

Still, these things have a way of taking on a life of their own. Lest our great-grandchildren find this wacky story circulating on the Intergalactinet in the year 2098, let it be known that there's no correlation between alleged prior cannibalism and love of Spam. As Sacks notes, the Spam-craving Pingelapese had no tradition of cannibalism. More important, Hawaii, epicenter of Pacific rim Spamophilism, has been more or less cannibal-free since the arrival of Christianity in the early 19th century. The popularity of Spam among Pacific islanders can be readily explained by the scarcity and expense of other types of meat and the lack or unreliability of refrigeration. Fresh meat is stored primarily in a self-propelled biounit known as a pig, which is only slaughtered for major occasions. If you're looking for a spicy bit to have with your breadfruit you can't beat the convenience of Spam.

Still, let's concede one point to Theroux. Does Spam taste corpsy? Of course it tastes corpsy — it's meat. We're just arguing about the identity of the deceased.


Cecil, my man!

You were right the first time. Yes, it is a joke. In spite of my solemn declaration in The Happy Isles of Oceania, the voracious Spam consumption in the Pacific is not conclusive evidence of a cannibal past.

And I enjoyed seeing my laborious joke cleverly adumbrated in yet another of your witty, wide-ranging, and inexhaustibly erudite columns.

But also, speaking as a vegetarian, all meat-eating looks to me like the first step down the road to anthropophagy.

With good wishes, Paul Theroux

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