The iconic canned meat is so popular in the Aloha State that Hormel debuted a spicy new version of SPAM at a food festival in Honolulu. Consensus: ‘It’s kind of ghetto, but it’s good.’
It was a memorable weekend in Honolulu, the capital of our 50th state.
Not just because the mercury hit 80 degrees under sunny skies and the beaches were packed with surfers and sunbathers. That happens pretty near every weekend.
No, last weekend was the debut of a new flavor of SPAM: Portuguese Sausage SPAM.
To most mainlanders, that’s about as exciting as a promotion for a “new” chicken noodle soup — Now with more chicken!
But in Hawaii, SPAM is big time, which is why Hormel Foods chose to introduce the new version at a SPAM Jam street festival last Saturday in Honolulu. The flavor, which was available to sample at the event, may eventually be sold elsewhere in the region and internationally, the company said in a statement.
Part of the success of SPAM is its obscure origins. Nobody is exactly sure what those four letters actually stand for — “spiced ham” is the most logical guess — nor exactly what goes into those blue-and-yellow cans, and that’s just the way Hormel likes it. On its website, the Austin, Minn.-based company tries hard to cloak its mystery meat in, well, mystery. The true meaning is known only by “a small circle of former executives, and probably Nostradamus,” the company explained.
What Hormel will acknowledge is that Ken Daigneau, the brother of one of the executives responsible for launching SPAM, won $100 in a contest for naming the canned meat back in 1937 when it was first introduced. Its popularity in Hawaii really took off during World War II, when tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors were stationed there, and SPAM was center of the mess kit for one of the GIs’ three squares a day. In addition to whatever nutritional value it provided, SPAM met the military’s main requirement: It didn’t need refrigeration.
Now, some 70 years after its debut there, SPAM is a familiar entrée on Hawaiian fastfood menuboards and in convenience stores, and fried SPAM with eggs is an Islands’ breakfast specialty. Many tonier restaurants even serve “upscale presentations,” such as SPAM Musubi, a sushi-inspired variation that consists of a slice of SPAM, rice and sesame seeds rolled up in nori maki seaweed.
It all adds up to sales of more than seven million cans a year in the state, according to Hormel. As the Honolulu Advertiser phrased it in a story on SPAM Jam, “The meat [has] a meaning in Hawaii. To tens of thousands in the Aloha State, it’s like steak and potatoes, pasta and sauce, fish and chips, or hot dogs.”
Creative cuisine from a can
It might be tough to conflate gas station fare with fine-dining steak, but the restaurants participating in SPAM Jam certainly tried to upsell the spiced meat product’s culinary status. According to the newspaper, some of the more creative versions offered to those in attendance included Barbecue SPAM, SPAM and Ahi Katsu with Wasabi Curry and Mango Salsa, and even SPAM cupcakes, whatever those are.
And no, there wasn’t any “SPAM and Toast or SPAM and SPAM,” to quote Monty Python’s famous bit, which eventually morphed into the hit Broadway musical “Spamalot” — which had its creators laughing all the way to the bank and to three Tony Awards, including Best Musical in 2005.
Probably more for the music than the meat.
Starring on Broadway, though prestigious, still plays to a limited audience, however, so this summer Hormel is launching the SPAMERICAN Tour, featuring a traveling step van that will visit a dozen cities to showcase Food Network Chef Sunny Anderson’s collection of SPAM recipes. That’s something you won’t want to miss (visit the Hormel website for dates and locations).
Equally noteworthy is the fact that the culinary cachet at SPAM Jam was matched by attendees’ charitable generosity. The Advertiser reported that the festival raised about $25,000 in donations for local charities, including the Hawaii Foodbank, which helps feeds low-income and homeless families.
SPAM undoubtedly takes up some serious space on the food bank’s shelves and in the boxes families take home.
But in Hawaii, that’s something to celebrate.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator