IF YOU open the pantry of any Korean household around the world, it is not unusual to find stacks of SPAM stored away, waiting to be cooked in a steaming bu dae jji gae* or fried up in a kim-chi fried rice. The beloved processed meat is an important facet of the Korean culinary experience: not just because of its compatibility with the cuisine, but also because of SPAM’s relationship with the U.S. military throughout World War Two, during which America had a strong presence in Korea. South Korea’s affinity with SPAM tells an interesting story about the nation’s post-war development and prosperity.
SPAM, the world’s most misunderstood meat
Commonly labelled as a “mystery meat,” there is a misconception that the block of pink pork is a blend of random limbs, hooves, snout and ears of a pig. To many around the world, particularly those in western nations, the meat is categorized alongside hot dog sausages and chicken nuggets; an amalgam of spare animal parts, mixed with chemicals and additives to give it a shelf life that exceeds that of freshly cut meat. The reason that SPAM is the object of disgust for many people is because it conjures up images of the gruesome reality of factory processed meat. While the meat is pre-cooked and can be eaten straight out of the can, it is frequently mistaken as being raw because of its color and texture. Some people are repulsed by SPAM because the meat is unrecognizable from its original form in terms of its texture and flavor, resembling hues of human flesh. Nonetheless, there is still a market for SPAM. The iconic blue can is recognized all over the world, with a small yet significant number of cultures who enjoy it as a part of their indigenous foods. The product is almost 80 years old, still selling over 122 million cans each year**.
The Etymology of the Word “SPAM”
The mystery around the perception of SPAM is reinforced by the confusion around the etymology of the term “SPAM.” There are many different interpretations of what the letters SPAM stands for, including “Something Posing as Meat,” “Shoulder of Pork and Ham” or “Specially Processed American Meat.” Furthermore, there are theories that the term is a portmanteau of the words “Spiced” and “Ham” or “Spare” and “Ham.” The product is owned by Hormel Foods, with its headquarters in Austin, Minnesota, United States but even the company cannot confirm the origins of the name. The most commonly accepted narrative is that the then-head of the company, Jay Hormel, held a naming contest for the mystery meat in 1937. Allegedly, Kenneth Daigneau, an actor, drunkenly yelled out the word “spam” and the name has stuck since***.In 1970, a Monty Python sketch about SPAM satirized the product, which resulted in the modern use of term “spam” to refer to unsolicited online mail, adding to the negative perception of the word.
SPAM in America
Over the course of history, Americans turned to SPAM during difficult times. The food was introduced during the Great Depression in 1937 as a substitute to “real” meat. The shortage of food during this time, particularly meat, meant that SPAM was marketed as a versatile “miracle meat” which offered an affordable alternative that also had a long shelf life. During the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, Americans turned to SPAM once again to put food on the table with Hormel Company having to increase production to meet the sudden surge in demand. SPAM also played an important role in America’s wars, with shiploads of the meat travelling around the world to feed their troops and allies. Between 1939 and 1942, the production and sales of SPAM doubled for the World War II. New York Times journalist Andrew Martin calls SPAM “the emblematic hard-time food in the American pantry****.” To the American people, SPAM alludes to poverty and trashiness. This ideology leads to feelings of “SPAM shame,” that is, a sense of embarrassment derived from having an affinity towards the product. However, cultures like South Korea, Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines, who have experienced U.S. military involvement, have adopted SPAM as an important part of their cuisine.
SPAM in South Korea
In South Korea, SPAM is considered a premium meat. High-profile actors and celebrities such as Ha Jung-woo or popular idol stars like Jeon So-mi can be seen on television promoting the product. South Korea is the biggest bulk consumer of the product outside of the United States*****. The food is found everywhere, commonly included in do-si-rak (lunchboxes), kim-chi fried rice, bu dae jji gae (army stew), and even in triangle gim-bab found in convenience stores. Expensive gifts are an important part of Korean holiday periods like Chu-seok, a thanksgiving holiday during which people return to their hometowns and pay their respects to their ancestors. During this time, various types of gift packages will crop up at stores, with SPAM collections sleekly packaged alongside premium alcohol, chocolate and fruit. These packages will usually cost upwards of $80.
Bu dae jji gae is one of the most popular Korean dishes to have SPAM in its recipe. Roughly translated as “army stew,” the stew is made with red pepper paste, kim-chi, SPAM, ramen noodles, sausages, canned beans, tofu, various vegetables and sometimes even cheese. If it sounds messy, that’s because it is. Bu dae jji gae a “trash dish” that was invented out of necessity during World War Two. The war had ravaged agricultural lands in Korea, ruining the self-sufficiency of the Korean people and leaving the people dependent on the charity of the American soldiers. Starving Korean citizens would rummage through the garbage of the U.S. military or rely on their handouts in order to feed themselves. Bu dae jji gae was an assembly of whatever scraps that could be found – the concoction of scavengers. To many Koreans, this food was a means of survival. Nowadays, bu dae jji gae is consumed by all types of Korean people and transcends social classes. It has come a long way from a “trash dish” born in the wake of poverty and famine to one of Korea’s most loved stews; these days you’ll find it on family dinner tables, shared between big groups of students or a couple on a date! There are even franchises dedicated to selling variations of the dish, such as Nol-boo Bu Dae Jji Gae or King Kong Bu Dae Jji Gae. From a symbol of survival to a booming gastronomy industry, bu dae jji gae represents the progress of this nation. To some, the dish still evokes memories of a war that is seared into the psyche of the nation but to a large extent, SPAM has been redefined in the minds of South Koreans. The people have truly adopted the food, taking a dish born from trauma and making it their own.
What does a can of SPAM tell us about the people who consume it? It could tell you the story of the struggle for survival. Or it could tell you about triumph and progress through the passage of time. Or they may just like the taste of it. SPAM is a food that unites, crosses borders and blends cultures. Each bite of SPAM contains the preservatives that impart the history of a people who survived through war and hardship. The next time you’re chomping down mouthfuls of the salty goodness, take a moment to stop and savor the history.
*Bu dae jji gae: Korean army stew
****The New York Times