December 13, 2004

A Seasonal Song of Spam

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- My international ruminations turned to Spam this week.  

That’s right, the oversalted, dripping with fat, made in Minnesota,
pink hunk of spiced pork meat that somehow became a great food icon in our United States.  

With the scents of eggnog and peppermint now in the air, my attention couldn’t help but turn this week from weighty matters to matters that make me weighty, i.e. food. (And shopping. At the Galleria Mall, I heard the “Jingle Bells” muzak playing and found myself softly singing “Spend-spend-spend, spend-spend-spend, spending all the way…”)  

With the sentiments of the season now upon us, I started to think, why couldn’t we find evidence of our commonality and influence across borders in the commonest of things. And the humblest of foods. Our own Spam!  

Right on cue, two news items broke last week, that Minnesota’s “special parts of animal meat” (“spiced ham” is how the company phrases it) is going international. Thanks to America’s declining reputation in Europe, Hormel is now marketing Spam in Britain as a British food. And in the Philippines, already one of Spam’s biggest overseas markets, the company has just opened several “Spam Jam Cafés,” with Spam burgers on offer. 

Loving Ridicule

I did a little research into Spam as a global phenomenon. Turns out the company has sold more than six billion of the blue 12-ounce cans since 1937, when the concoction was invented over in Austin.  

The stuff is produced in three foreign countries (Denmark, Korea, and the Philippines), sold directly in 41 countries, and is trademarked in more than 100. There are only 193 sovereign countries in the world, so we are talking one truly global product here. Software and Spam, covering the world.
But what truly hit me about Spam, upon reflection, was how this quintessentially American food, gastronomically crude yet culturally beloved, widely yet lovingly ridiculed, reminded me of many similar types of foods I’ve run across while living in other countries.  

Every country, it seems, has a special corner of its cultural pantry stocked with weirdo dishes that everybody loves to hate. Or, more precisely, with foods that everyone in that country professes to love – while loving even more the fact that everyone else in the world seems shocked -- shocked! --that the people of said nation could actually eat anything so awful, so vile.  

Blood Sausages

Take for example the dish called natto, in Japan.  

“Natto” is rotting, excuse me, fermenting soybeans. It looks like a pile of something you left in the refrigerator last week, and tastes like it too. A handful-sized serving is eaten with a dash of hot yellow mustard. But the really interesting thing about natto is that it has decomposed to precisely the point where long sagging strings of white mucus stretch from the dish to the chopsticks you are using to take in a brave mouthful of the stuff.  

This spectacle greatly increases the mirth of one’s Japanese hosts, who have served you natto for the pleasure of watching you eat it for the first time.  

In Scotland, you have haggis, which is ground sheep lungs, heart, liver, mutton suet, and oatmeal all mixed together and served in a lamb’s stomach. The locals insist they love it. Most definitely they love the deer-in-the-headlight looks that cross the face of visitors when being served haggis the first time. Ditto, in England, being served blood sausages for breakfast.  

But for sheer boldness of effect, nothing in my experience beats durian, the horrendously malodorous fruit that’s native to Singapore and Malaysia. The smell is so bad and so easily permeates the atmosphere that all throughout Southeast Asia, hotels post at their front doorways the universal symbol of a circle with a red slash through the middle, crossing out a durian fruit.  

Dirty Socks

To say the smell is similar to dirty socks would be a gentle euphemism. Normally, anything with such a smell is immediately taken outside, burned at the dump, or flushed. And yet, as with natto in Japan and haggis in Scotland, the locals say they love the stuff. (Did someone say lutefisk?) 

Durian is so omnipresent in Singapore and Malaysia, so talked about and so joked about and so lovingly reviled -- with the clear implication being that only a great nation could embrace so cruel-smelling a food -- one wonders why they don’t just put a durian on their national flags.  

Now Spam is no durian, and I like our flag just the way it is. Yet it feels rousing and patriotic to sing of Spam, of everlasting love for our very own salt-and-pork crud, so easy on the palate, so hard on the arteries. I ate Spam sandwiches as a kid, so I’m a fan forever. And if more people around the world intensely disliked it, I would like it even more.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report