People love to make fun of SPAM, but it's endured for 80 years. Hormel is smiling all the way to the bank.
People love to make fun of SPAM, but it's endured for 80 years. Hormel is smiling all the way to the bank.

Of all the canned meat products in this world, there is only one that has managed to overcome the category’s image of being as far down the quality scale as an edible food product could be.

Talkin’ about SPAM.

It’s not just a four-letter word, it’s a cultural icon, a part of the lexicon, shorthand for something we publicly loathe but privately love.

Or at least “like.” I mean, somebody’s buying those multi-millions of cans of SPAM that Hormel’s been selling for nearly 80 years now — and not just the original formula. Whether it’s a zany variation on the children’s classic green eggs and SPAM (seriously), or a Hawaiian alternative to sushi called musuli (substituting cooked SPAM for raw fish), it’s a product that refuses to take itself seriously, yet still manages to be innovative.

And that’s part of the reason for SPAM’s longevity. After all, not many consumer brands or products have survived since the 1930s.

Hudson, Viceroy, Ipana — these were all iconic brands and category leaders back when SPAM debuted. Even more remarkable for us 21st century sophisticates, the very notion of “canned meat” seems antiquated, a format from yesteryear that should have joined a host of other industry products in the dustbins of history.

Anyone bought any pure white leaf lard lately? That was one of Procter & Gamble’s biggest sellers back in 1937, when SPAM was first marketed. Last time I checked, lard is universally perceived as a four-letter word.

The Many Flavors of SPAM

Meanwhile, at Hormel headquarters in the small town of Austin, Minn., the Austin Daily Herald recently ran what amounted to an infomercial for SPAM, complete with details of the product’s star turn at the town’s Hearth & Home education series, complete with a recap of SPAM’s history, a tasting menu of new items from the brand — even a mention of two “Spambassadors,” Terri and Guinevere, welcoming visitors to the Hormel Historic Home, where more than 80,000 people from all 50 states and 50 foreign countries have been estimated to have visited since its opening.

That day, the “crowd” numbered only 25, but that didn’t dampen the fanfare for the introduction of a new SPAM product: Mezclita, a Puerto Rican-inspired product that is, to quote the story, “a versatile, spreadable product that will liven up any two pieces of bread.”

Which was SPAM’s original mission, by the way . . . the part about residing between two pieces of bread, that is.

The second course was a breakfast burrito filled with chorizo-flavored SPAM topped with a taco sauce, followed by a sweet-and-salty dessert made with hickory-flavored SPAM, peaches, caramel sauce and bleu cheese.

As the reporter urged her readers, “Don’t wrinkle your nose; it was great!”

After the munchies, Spambassabor Guinevere shared the story of how the product acquired its name: Apparently, way back when, Hormel paid an actor, Ken Daigneau, $100 for coming up with SPAM.

I’m guessing he wished he’d settled instead for a percentage of the gross.

But the real story of SPAM is Hormel’s steadfast refusal to succumb to the late-night jokes, the teasing in the media, the outright condemnation by the nutrition police of its iconic product. Instead, the company embraced the zany and often ridiculous positioning of the product and graciously soldiered on, its marketing guided by the maxim that no publicity is bad publicity.

That tolerance was tested with the debut of the 2005 Broadway play “Spamalot,” a Monty Python creation directed by the late, legendary Mike Nichols, winner of the Grand Slam of awards: an Oscar, a Grammy (for a comedy album), four Emmys and nine Tony Awards. Nichols, whose five-decade career included directing such classic films as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “The Graduate,” “Silkwood,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” won one of his Tonys for Spamalot, which enjoyed a run of more than 1,500 performances and grossed an estimated $175 million.

Not bad for a play that was a whacky adaptation of the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” a comedic re-imagining of the legend of King Arthur. (The actual title of the play came from a single line in the movie, “We eat ham, and jam, and spam a lot.” Supposedly, Eric Idle, Monty Python co-founder and one of the creators of the play’s musical spoofs, tested the “Spamalot” title with American audiences, who reacted favorably to the pun.

I seriously doubt if the members of Monty Python or the Broadway cast helped themselves to a craft table heaped with SPAM, in any of its ethnic or culinary variations, during those hundreds of performances.

But while plenty of people continue to make fun of the name and the product, the showbiz folks — and the Hormel executive team — are laughing all the way to the bank.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.