We've been having a heated discussion in the office, and we need to know how Spam luncheon meat is really made. Also, how come they never released a chicken or turkey version (i.e., Spurkey or Spicken)? Finally, what is Monty Python's true relationship with Spam? --Steve Tolin, Sudbury, Ontario
In the interest of thoroughness I thought that somebody here at Dopecorp should actually eat some Spam before we wrote about it. You'd think I was asking these guys to throw themselves on a grenade. "Cecil, I ate a damn Circus Peanut," wailed my assistant Jane. "I did laundry. Hell, I even sniffed out sperm trees. This is where I draw the line." Little Ed was likewise unwilling, the pup. So it was up to me.
I bought a tin and popped it open, fully expecting to be bowled over by who knows what awful aroma. Didn't happen. The smell was...surprisingly mild. Moreover, the stuff was edible, if salty. Granted, I ate Circus Peanuts without ill effects, and I've had a couple of airline meals that I considered tasty, so maybe I just have a high threshold of disgust. Still, if I were in a foxhole fighting for my country, and it was either Spam or starvation, I would take Spam every time.
What makes you a bit queasy is the nutritional labeling on the side of the can. A single serving--two thin slices--contains 30 percent of your daily saturated-fat quota, 31 percent of your sodium, and 13 percent of your cholesterol. If people ate Spam exclusively you'd never have to worry about social security; nobody would live long enough to collect.
On to your questions. The common assumption is that Spam is made of stuff even pigs would be ashamed to admit they've got. Not so, says the nice lady at Hormel Foods, which manufactures Spam. It contains a mixture of ham and chopped pork shoulder. (Ham is the pig's thigh; pork is everything else.) Ham is Hormel's top-of-the-line product, and Spam was created in 1937 partly to use up what was left of the pig after the ham had been removed. But only the wholesome leftovers. The name Spam, dreamed up by the actor brother of a Hormel vice president, is short for "spiced ham." It should be recognized that Hormel is in Austin, Minnesota, so these are Minnesota spices: sugar and salt. If you want to go crazy and use pepper, well, as far as Hormel is concerned, it'll be on your head.
As for what Monty Python saw in Spam, one supposes they were celebrating the ineffable, I dunno, pinkness of it all. Their famous Spam sketch, in which the dialogue is periodically drowned out by the chorus "Spam, Spam, Spam," was the inspiration for the Internet term "spam," meaning the junk E-mail that now floods the net. Presumably a similar sort of artistic impulse animates the annual Spam sculpture contest as well as the Web site for users' Spam haikus (pemtropics.mit.edu/-jcho/Spam/). Samples from the more than 9,300 currently on file:
The color of Spam
Is natural as the sky:
A block of sunrise
Pink tender morsel
Glistening with salty gel
What the hell is it?
Old man seeks doctor
"I eat Spam daily," he says
Pink beefy temptress
I can no longer remain
Thanks to aggressive marketing, worldwide Spam sales have grown substantially over the past few years, with well over 150 million cans sold annually. Previously people tended to think Spam was something you should keep in the basement in case the refrigerator goes out during a nuclear war. To change this perception, Hormel boss Joel Johnson promoted concepts such as the Spamburger, sold Spam merchandise (e.g., Spam-can earrings--check 'em out at coyote.co.net/spamgift/), and even made a concession to the current interest in not dying young by introducing a low (well, lower) fat Spam. Which brings us to your question about chicken Spam: they do make it, sort of--chicken is one of the things that go into the aforementioned low-fat Spam, known as Spam Lite. Some may find the taste a little funkier than that of the regular version. But what the heck, it's still pink.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.