In my native Hawaii, Spam is beloved. It has a place at every meal, over rice and stir-fried in noodles and served in thick slices alongside eggs and pancakes. Spam is the bacon on our burgers, the ham in our carbonara, the pigs in our blankets.
Hawaiians eat the most Spam of any population in the world — seven million cans a year, or about six cans for every islander. We celebrate holidays with Spam. There’s an annual festival called the Spam Jam. The year Spam turned 75, my mom’s best friend sent her a case of commemorative, limited-edition Spam which is displayed proudly at my parents’ Oregon restaurant. When Hawaiian expats come to eat, they regularly pull my mother aside, offering illicit sums of money for the canned memorabilia, running their fingers over the metal grooves and imagining it as their own. My mother has systematically rejected each of these offers, unable to fathom why she would part with an everlasting, limited-edition slice of spiced ham history.
When I was seven and my family moved from Oahu to Oregon, it came as a great shock that Spam was an embarrassing food to love. The first time I took a spam musubi from my lunch box, my school mates were horrified by the pink slice of formed meat attached to rice with a piece of seaweed. Their choice of lunch meat didn’t appeal to me either — partitioned trays of cold, plastic-tasting ham and cheese, crackers, and a juice pouch — at least my meat came in durable metal, at least mine was previously hot, seared in a pan with garlicky teriyaki sauce. But at seven years old, I couldn’t shoulder the burden of Spam alone. With no one to back me up, in a land of Fruit Roll-Ups and peanut butter and jelly, I became what my mom calls a closet Spam-eater. I loved it privately, indulging in Spam on the weekends and for breakfast before school, asking my mom to pack me plain rice balls for lunch, which, oddly, my friends thought were cool.
But as I got older, my relationship with Spam matured. In college, I took my Jewish Manhattan-born boyfriend to Hawaii, knowing he’d be met with the inevitable Spam-extravaganza, dreading its arrival, hoping my family would have the good sense to serve him safe foods like huli huli chicken or roast pork buns. But my feelings for my new boyfriend swelled as I watched him devour meals full of Spam, declaring it underrated and delicious. By the end of the week, he was a connoisseur of sorts; with just four days in my grandparents’ home, my boyfriend had formed an opinion on spam to rice ratio, had gone to the store with my grandma to buy discounted Spam to bring back in his suitcase. At long last, he put the correct verbal emphasis on the word musubi.It came as a great shock that Spam was an embarrassing food to love. The first time I took a Spam musubi from my lunch box, my school mates were horrified by the pink slice of formed meat attached to rice with a piece of seaweed. Their choice of lunch meat didn’t appeal to me either — partitioned trays of cold, plastic-tasting ham and cheese, crackers, and a juice pouch — at least my meat came in durable metal, at least mine was previously hot, seared in a pan with garlicky teriyaki sauce.
Back in New York, my boyfriend and I became a tag team. We discovered a place downtown cooking with spam and started bringing friends there to try it. We learned to describe Spam musubis as “Spam sushi,” which helped ease the anxiety of most people and gave Spam a certain mysterious sophistication. For those without an affinity for sushi, my boyfriend drew a loose parallel to Canadian bacon, or a casing-less Hawaiian kielbasa. And while the kielbasa comparison never went over particularly well, we grew more and more confident, high-fiving under the table as the Spam dishes were devoured and reordered.
Last year, that same boyfriend and I went to Asia and found Spam in Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea—adorning the menus of everything from izakayas to Burger Kings. In South Korea, Spam was everywhere, and, even more surprisingly, they’d made it fancy. Packaged in box sets, tied with ribbons, and paired with expensive European luxury goods — we learned that Spam was a much-desired gift for the approaching lunar Thanksgiving holiday. Spam was cool there; it was upscale.
Meat products formed into various shapes is nothing new, and it’s my opinion that in mainland America, Spam simply suffers from the stigma of its name, a lack of proper PR. Think of hot dogs, which can be advertised with cute cartoon Dachshunds snuggled in blanket-like buns, or Vienna sausages, whose name gives them an unfair, European-sounding advantage. Spam is synonymous with junk mail, with overly aggressive sales pitches. And, perhaps worse, misconceptions of how to consume Spam have perpetuated the image of meat straight from the can, slimy and pale. Just like hotdogs and Vienna sausages, Canadian bacon and kielbasa, Spam is a fully cooked meat that must be heated to be enjoyed. Imagine if we ate other foods cold, straight from the can; cold clam chowder, cold mushy peas, cold refried beans. Eaten incorrectly, any food could suffer the tragic, misguided fate of Spam. Eat it correctly and Spam might surprise us all, rising stateside to its South Korean potential.
My love for Spam is here to stay. It’s a proud part of my Hawaiian heritage, out of the closet, unashamed. There’s a romanticism that comes with being from Hawaii, with its people and traditions and lush natural surroundings, but the local cuisine, obscured by the shadow of tiki culture, is largely misunderstood. Hawaiian food is not chicken with pineapples or shrimp with mangoes or frothy drinks served in oversized coconuts. The food most authentic to the islands is Spam, glorious slabs of seared spiced ham, the local favorite, the cherished Hawaiian Steak.
Chinese-American Cecily Wong was born in Hawaii and has lived in Oregon, where her parents run a Hawaiian restaurant. Her new novel DIAMOND HEAD grew from family stories told to her by her parents and grandparents. It follows four generations of a wealthy shipping family whose rise and decline is riddled with secrets and tragic love and is available starting April 14th, 2015.