Spam: The Meat That Won World War II & Possibly Saved Humanity

Photo: Sliced Spam © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Sliced Spam
© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

With the Great Depression drawing near a decade mark and the possibility of a second world war looming on the horizon, America’s processed food manufacturers found themselves struggling to maintain their businesses and were forced to imagine new business models to maintain their solvency.

Hormel entered this market by selling a revolutionary idea: Canned meat.  First were hams, followed by chicken.  The vacuumed sealed meat would preserve for great lengths of time inside the air tight canisters, allowing widespread distribution at considerably lower prices.  These factors made the company’s products an ideal meal for the cash strapped peoples of the 1930s.

Still, pork shoulders were a hard sale for the company, as customers simply did not like this type of meat.

Rather than allow these shoulders to go to waste, Hormel began mixing these remnants with sparse amounts of ground ham, using potato starch as a binder.  Sugar, water and salt were added for flavor and instantly, the company’s most iconic product was created: Spam.

The affordable Spam meat maintained many struggling families throughout the Great Depression; however, it was not until the United States entered World War II that the company’s brand would reach the levels we know today.

With hundreds of thousands of soldiers being deployed all around the globe, the United States military found itself facing a dilemma the likes of which it had never previously imagined: How does a country feed 16 million soldiers serving all around the globe? Roughly 11% of the US population during World War II.

To the rescue came Hormel and their newly created product of Spam.

Soldiers quickly developed a love/hate relationship with the lunch meat most of them had never previously before seen, variously calling it, “ham that didn’t pass its physical”, “meatloaf without basic training”, and “Special Army Meat”.

Despite its lackluster reception, over 150 million pounds of Spam were purchased by the military before the war’s end and the distinctively American brand was introduced to peoples all around the globe, including, Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Europe.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher later referred to it as a “wartime delicacy”.

In addition to increasing production for the U.K., Hormel expanded Spam output as part of Allied aid to the similarly beleaguered Soviet Union.

Nikita Khrushchev declared, “Without Spam we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army”. Throughout the war, countries ravaged by the conflict and faced with strict food rations came to appreciate Spam.

Following the war, Spam’s brand recognition would only grow and by 2003, Spam was being sold in 41 countries on six continents and trademarked in over 100 countries. The billionth can was sold in 1959, and in 2007, the seven billionth can of Spam was sold. In 2012, the eight billionth can of Spam was sold.

Today, each culture where Spam is sold has done little things to give their local accent to the American dish: In Asia it is often served with rice, in Hawaii (the largest per capita Spam consumers in the nation) it is generally served with a band of nori, in the Philippines it can be seen on burgers or even as spaghetti meat.

Though there’s really no secret as to its ingredients, Spam has long been seen as a mystery meat to many, which is why when mysterious emails began appearing in people’s inboxes during the 1990s, technology writers wasted no time in giving them a name: Spam.

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