In praise of Spam

Illustration of Oski Bear holding a can of SPAM in Sproul Plaza.
Cameron Opartkiettikul/Staff

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It’s Pilipinx American History Month, and I’m finding it difficult to afford myself the emotional space to celebrate or reflect on this, so I will focus on what might be the most important story to tell about Pilipinx American history. I am speaking, of course, about the history of Spam.

What does it even stand for? It has been cited as a shorthand for various witty phrases, including, but not limited to, “scientifically processed animal matter” and “spiced ham.” But if someone asked me what Spam stands for, I would venture my favorite guess: “(s)ome (p)roduct (a)pproaching (m)eat.” If I were feeling particularly prone to oversharing, I would say that I fantasize often about my retirement, when I will establish an organization specifically for young Pil-Am writers called (S)amahang (P)ilipinx (A)merican (M)anunulat — but that’s a story for another time.

I cannot tell you about the first time I ate Spam, but I can tell you that I like my Spam slightly burnt on the edges so that it crunches upon being bitten. I can tell you that I like it with rice, or buttered pandesal or in musubi-form. I can attest, with the utmost conviction, that it has been a stabilizing agent for the entirety of my life. My parents, both born in the Philippines, made sure it was a staple of my diet, and when I visit my family back in the homeland, their tables are likewise adorned with the funky little meat slabs. Few things can comfort me the way that a breakfast of Spamsilog does — a meal consisting of eggs and rice alongside the star of the show. Spam was there to fuel my cognitive performances before finals, AP tests and middle school mathlete competitions. It is often my lunch, a single slice betwixt two humble pieces of bread.

My point is, I like Spam a lot, and this was, it turns out, by design.

To call Spam “processed” is a gross understatement. No, “engineered” is my preferred term for this unusual tube of meat. It was in 1937 that Spam was loosed upon the world. It emerged as a way to make pork shoulder profitable during the Great Depression. So how did this humble, six-ingredient (pork, water, salt, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrate) meat concoction become all the craze across the Pacific? Why, imperialism, of course!

The U.S. military found Spam’s durability and ease of preparation (you can eat it straight from the can!) favorable for war-hardened troops in both the Pacfic theater and continental Europe. In total, the United States shipped more than 100 million pounds of Spam to its troops during World War II. The meat cubes served as sustenance, while the greasy residue of the cans was used to oil guns and waterproof boots.

I am no capitalist, but I must concede that there is some truth to the antiquated idea that the free market births innovations to meet the demands of the economy. In this case, a product that was meant merely to make the unprofitable profitable ended up serving multiple functions. First, as intended, it made money. Second, it quite literally greased the gears of war and helped the Allied forces combat Nazis and fascists. Finally, it fed the hungry — and not just the soldiers.

This is the kind of multitudinous agent I can appreciate as a citizen of the diaspora.

Wherever the United States sent Spam to its troops, it found a way to trickle into local diets and local mouths. Perhaps paradoxically, Spam is both specific in flavor and versatile in its application. It’s a culinary canvas that allowed people in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Hawaii to absorb it into their distinct palates even after the end of the war. This is how I, a Pilipinx American, ended up eating the stuff while growing up.

What fascinates me about Spam is that it is hard to pin down exactly what story it tells. It resists us projecting a particular agenda onto it — it is an economic marvel, nutritional disaster and comfort food all at once. This is the kind of multitudinous agent I can appreciate as a citizen of the diaspora. I occupy two worlds — the colonizer state of the United States and the colonized state of the Philippines — in the same way that Spam as food and Spam as gun greaser are coexisting identities. What Spam tells me, more than any other food, is that it is okay to deconstruct false binaries, that I don’t need to “decide” what or who I am.

Put in a single word, the secret wisdom I think Spam is trying to impart to us is the idea of potentiality. Like John Steinbeck’s “thou mayest” or America’s “unfinished symphony,” Spam leaves open the possibility of interpretation. It is unmoored from the burden of needing to be defined, unshackled, in a sense, from reality itself. Spam is a poem, not a manifesto. It is the sea, not the shore. It is a great “both/and.” Spam is in no rush to figure out what it is, nor should I be. It’s okay to just be whatever it is I am: Pilipinx AND American, in no particular order.

So to return to my first question, what does Spam stand for? To me, at least for now, it stands for “it’(S) (P)ililinx (A)merican history (M)onth.”

Contact Edrick Sabalburo at [email protected].