Monday, April 23, 2012

Pig Shoulders

Hungry teenagers coming home from school aren’t always particular about what they shove in their mouths. In my day the number of snack foods wasn’t anywhere near what it is now, and we usually ‘made’ something from what we could find in the kitchen. One day it might be nothing more than a mayonnaise sandwich, two pieces of Sunbeam white bread with Kraft mayonnaise spread between, and on other days some sliced tomato added. Along with a glass of milk, it filled the stomach and in our minds was the next best thing to a hamburger. And then there were the afternoons when Mamma brought out the big guns and served out a deluxe sandwich: toasted white bread, mayonnaise and two slices of fried Spam. Whatever we say about that now, in those days before the diet craze, reading labels and worrying about health it was a great favorite with everyone.

Spam was first released on the American market in 1937. Hormel Foods Corporation was originally a meat packing company in Austin, Minnesota that brought out canned ham in 1926. By the early 1930s, a number of companies were producing canned pork in large containers, but when other companies imitated his product, Hormel added spices to make theirs distinct. The competition included lips, snouts and even ears in their meats but Hormel refused to use these parts of the animal, using only the shoulder of the pig—a cut rarely used because of the time it took to remove it from the bone. Hormel’s meat was a superior grade and more expensive than the competition’s, but still it looked the same. The company considered ways to distinguish their product from the rest and came up with two ideas: reduce the size of the can so it was family-sized and design a distinctive label.

Production of Hormel’s canned pork slowed temporarily while the company came up with a new type of container and a clever name. There was some dispute over the name at first, but Spam seemed perfect—a combination of the words ‘spiced’ and ‘ham,’ even though the original recipe contained no ham. Hormel later added ham to the mix because so many thought it was already a main ingredient. When the new product hit market shelves it was not an instant seller, but a good many shoppers were happy with Spam’s value and convenience.

The original ingredients were chopped pork shoulder meat with added ham, salt, water, modified potato starch as a binder, and sodium nitrite as a preservative. Today about ninety percent of Spam is pork from a pig’s shoulders, the remaining ten percent from buttocks and thighs, better known as ham. This ratio varies according to ham and pork prices. The US Department of Agriculture does not permit any non-meat fillers in lunchmeat, and no longer allows pig snouts, lips, or ears. The second ingredient is salt, added for flavor and for use as a preservative. A small amount of water is used to bind the ingredients together, and sugar is included for flavor. Finally, sodium nitrate is added to prevent botulism, acting as a preservative as well. Sodium nitrite gives Spam its bright pink color, and without it the meat would turn brown. The gelatin glaze so common to Spam is a result of the meat stock cooling.

During World War II it was difficult to get fresh meat to soldiers on the front but that problem proved to be a huge boost to Spam sales and GIs began eating Spam for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some of the jokes that passed among soldiers called the canned luncheon meat “ham that didn’t pass its physical” and “meatloaf without basic training.” By 1941, Hormel had sold forty million cans and throughout the war supplied Allied troops with fifteen million cans of Spam per week. Despite the jokes among soldiers, it was Word War II that brought Spam to tables around the world.

Hormel sold its seven billionth can of Spam in 2007, and by 2008 sales were on the rise. On average, 3.8 cans are consumed every second in the United States. Two American plants produce 44,000 cans of Spam every hour. Hawaiians eat four million cans per capita of Spam a year and are crazy about Spam sushi.


  1. I have a friend who is an avid Spam eater. He swears the Spam now doesn't taste the same as it did in our youth. Ate plenty myself growing up, and as the old saying goes, If I had a dollar for every mayonnaise and Spam sandwich I ate . . .

  2. I really haven't seen Spam in the stores in so long, but I haven't looked for it so probably just missed it. I never gave it to my children even though I did eat a lot growing up.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America