SPAM® in Guam history and culture

SPAM®, the famous pink loaf in a blue square can found in kitchens around the world, has a particular place in the Guamanian household. Alongside, and maybe more so than, canned corned beef, SPAM® is probably the most versatile food item that people on Guam have handled, prepared and consistently consumed since its introduction to the Pacific islands in the mid-20th century. It is estimated that Guam residents on average eat more than 16 cans per person annually, making the island one of the highest per capita consumers of SPAM® in the world.

Food and culture

The old adage “You are what you eat,” when understood in a biological context, relates food to its nutritional and physiological function of providing the building blocks for living cells. However, in studies of culture, “You are what you eat” reveals how food effectively represents notions of national, regional, local and even personal identity.

Food can define who we are and how we understand ourselves as people. Indeed, food is a powerful symbol of culture, one that carries deep meanings of communication and identity. Types of food and traditional methods of obtaining and cooking it function in much the same way that language, music, architecture, dance, art and dress provide different unique cultural meanings. Some foods represent a particular cultural identity more obviously than others—for example, sushi is associated with Japanese cuisine, pasta with Italian, and poi with Hawai’ian.

Even our behaviors show that we understand this relationship between food and culture. Travelers to foreign countries might seek out places that serve authentic, local cuisine, and those who leave their homeland for extended periods of time may miss the familiar foods typical of the places they left behind.

However, food and food preparation, like other elements of culture, are not static. They, too, are modified over time as lifestyles or food preferences shift and are transformed, as cultures increasingly come in contact with each other, and as people continue to cross national boundaries and provide new motivation for innovation and change.

Broad historical forces can also direct changing preferences for food and their associated cultural identities. But rarely does a single food item become the source and force behind a perception of cultural identity that spans great geographical distances, connects diverse groups of people, and is used both positively and negatively in expressing relations in a post-colonial world. Such is the phenomenon of SPAM®.

Post WWII need

Without access to their farmlands and fishing grounds just after World War II, Chamorros desperately sought new avenues to alleviate the rampant malnutrition faced in the immediate postwar period. Malnutrition affected nearly the entire indigenous population by war’s end, due in part to widespread confiscations of food to feed thousands of Japanese soldiers. To this rescue came the victorious American forces whose military storage depots abundantly provided canned foods, so that the Chamorros, as scholar and war survivor Dr. Pedro Sanchez writes, “ate to their hearts’ delight” and “hoarded cases and cans” of these rations in case the food supply was ever again threatened. Sanchez writes that “tons” of canned goods were given away, so much so that Chamorro shelters “looked like mini-warehouses”.

Spam figured largely among the hoarded canned goods, and war commemorations on Guam invariably connect this particular brand of canned meat with freedom and loyalty to the US. Commercial advertisements, produced for Guam’s 60th anniversary of liberation from the war, illustrate an important motif in the post-war Guam story. As stated by war survivor, Josephine Palomo, “We’re very grateful, we’re very thankful that our mother country came back for us. The soldiers were very, very friendly. They distributed all kinds of candies, all kinds of canned goods. And I tell you …. SPAM was number one!”

In the immediate postwar scenario, Sanchez describes that while Chamorros were “stunned by the total destruction of their communities” and pained to lose their land, they were also “grateful to be alive and free under the American Flag.”

SPAM® has since served as a powerful reminder of freedom from the war’s physical and psychological brutalities, as well as a daily sign of American heroism and generosity. It functions as a metaphor for US generosity and valor, albeit at the cost of Chamorro land and bodies, according to historian Dr. Anne Perez Hattori.

The theme of Chamorro gratitude to the US, evidenced in part by commemorative SPAM cans and advertisements, becomes the powerful, ideological banner under which the rest of Guam’s history is understood. In her powerful essay, Psyche under siege: Uncle Sam, look what you’ve done to us, Chamorro scholar Laura Torres Souder conveys, “The joys of ‘liberation’ were sweet. Chamorro survivors of World War II embraced all that was American with overwhelming gratitude and profound respect. Uncle Sam and his men were worshiped as heroes.” Yet while “Uncle Sam is typically viewed as a great benefactor, a white-bearded Santa Claus whose generosity is unparalleled,” Souder writes, “We, who have paid the price exacted from this costly relationship with Uncle Sam, know better. … [F]or us, the war has not ended.”

Pacific’s “Spam Identity”

From its introduction to the Pacific during World War II, SPAM® has become an integral part of the Pacific island lifestyle. Nowhere else on earth does SPAM® figure so prominently on local menus and cookbooks, kitchen shelves and dinner tables than in the Pacific. Although SPAM® is consumed in great quantities worldwide, interestingly, it is the peoples of the Pacific island nations and territories that seem to be most closely associated with the glistening loaf. This “SPAM® identity” is largely the result of high SPAM® consumption in the region but also its association with the US military presence, especially since World War II. SPAM®, as a significant western commodity, historically embodies the processes of development and westernization, and itself, is commodified by the Pacific islanders who consume it, serve it at restaurants, organize SPAM® promotional events or exchange it as gifts.

Obviously, SPAM® is not all Pacific islanders eat, nor is it necessarily the first food item thought of when people think of the diets of Pacific island societies. In fact, there are many who do not like to eat SPAM® at all. However, SPAM® does have a place in Pacific cultural identity—it is enjoyed and proudly embraced and promoted as a part of “local culture and cuisine.” Through the development of recipes, SPAM® has been indigenized, meaning, this cultural import has been transformed to something new, different, and expressive of a local cultural identity.

Although SPAM® had been distributed throughout all the different US-involved wars since World War II, even during times of peace, SPAM® was widely consumed in the Pacific. This was in addition to other processed foods like corned beef, Vienna sausages, canned sardines and tuna, sugar, flour and soft drinks as the islands were developed under western colonialism. People ate SPAM® because it tasted good; it was convenient, versatile, and did not require refrigeration. In a place where electrical power was often unreliable and infrastructure was vulnerable to naturally destructive forces like typhoons or drought, SPAM® was a useful food to have around the house.

Fresh food, too, was scarce on Guåhan after WWII, as much of the island was blown apart by days of American bombings in 1944. CHamorus ate what was available to them, which was mostly imported.

SPAM® was also consumed for reasons other than taste. In the Pacific, SPAM® like other western commodities, became symbols of status. Even if one had access to fresh meat and chicken, if one could afford to buy canned meats either for household use or as gifts, it was an important sign of wealth. Corned beef, like SPAM®, developed a similar significance within Pacific cultures, its versatility allowed the creation of new dishes which reflected the cooking techniques and ingredients that were familiar in the islands. But unlike SPAM®, there is no one particular manufacturer and corned beef product that possesses the same kind of iconic branding as Hormel’s SPAM®.

For SPAM®, the possibilities for new dishes seemed limitless—SPAM® musubi, SPAM® fried rice, SPAM® saimin, or SPAM® kelaguen, to name a few innovations. These new recipes were easy to develop because SPAM® goes well with rice, a staple in many Pacific diets after World War II, as well as local vegetables and noodles. They demonstrated the Pacific islanders’ creativity, resourcefulness and penchant for good food. In addition, as major purchasers of SPAM® and other western goods, the Pacific became an important market that could not be ignored. In fact, some major food chains, such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s, include Spam among their local menu items.

Pacific islanders have taken the commodity of SPAM®, and have used it to suit their needs and preferences. In essence, Pacific islanders are doing with SPAM® what they have always managed to do with many other cultural items, values and beliefs introduced by the west: simultaneously accommodate and transform them to make them their own.

Guam, “SPAM® Capital”

When the US acquired Guam as a spoil of the Spanish-American War of 1898, the American military presence introduced American popular culture in the form of music, clothing styles, entertainment, and food habits. Up until World War II, many CHamorus maintained a primarily subsistence lifestyle, growing their own food, purchasing fresh meat or slaughtering animals raised on their lånchos (ranches), or fishing and gathering river and ocean resources. However, a study of diet and health on Guam in 1958 determined that characteristics of the Guamanian diet and food habits were rapidly changing, especially since the end of the war.

Newly formed wage economy

The large American population on the island not only exposed local residents to American goods, but it also provided jobs that necessitated a change in lifestyle from agricultural subsistence to wage labor. There was less time to fish or grow their own food. Instead, the development of this new wage economy allowed Guamanians to purchase processed, imported foods. Such items that were convenient, easy to prepare and had little waste were deemed essential. SPAM® easily fit the bill for providing full meals for many CHamoru families. It also was handy during times when foodstuffs with a longer shelf-life were necessary. Over time, SPAM® continued to be a handy food item, even when the luncheon meat’s popularity in the mainland US waned.

Guam is probably one of the few places where families actually buy SPAM® by the case (24 cans). Depending upon its preparation, a single can is enough to feed two people or a family of 10. It is a convenient food to have around, especially after typhoons or earthquakes that have damaged power lines and knocked out electricity. But SPAM® is not just emergency food—its taste is appealing to many people. It is also “cheap meat,” relative to other processed and unprocessed meats, though the price may cause some to try other brands. The reputation as the place with the highest per capita consumption of SPAM® has not gone unnoticed by Hormel. In fact, Hormel has gone all out to be sure that their product is continually on the shelves in local stores. Hormel even donated 40,000 cans of SPAM® to be distributed by the Salvation Army after supertyphoon Paka struck the island in 1997 and caused major damage that left a lot of families temporarily homeless and without water and power.

Hormel also recognized Guam as a good place to test the market for Hot and Spicy SPAM®, which hit the shelves in 2000, its bright red label displaying a local favorite of fried rice as the “serving suggestion.” For this venture, Hormel teamed up with the McIlhenny Company, the makers of Tabasco® Pepper Sauce, to create a product that would appeal to Guamanians’ penchant for dousing their SPAM® with Tabasco®. Hot and Spicy SPAM® is also unique in that the recipe label for the fried rice was provided by Shirley’s Restaurant, marking the first time a local restaurant recipe had ever been featured on a can of SPAM®. Hormel also produced a commemorative 60th Anniversary Guam Liberation label for cans of Spam in 2004, an interesting display of the intersection of Guam history, popular culture and American commercialism.

Many local residents embrace Guam’s identity as the highest per capita consumers of SPAM® in the world. Major events and barbecues are organized around promoting the innovative dishes the people of Guam prepare using SPAM® as the main ingredient. One prominent CHamoru, US Marine veteran John Gerber, for whom the US Post Office building in Barrigada is named, had a fishing boat he named SPAM. While most folks were amused, this was, perhaps, the only time Hormel Foods Corporation was not happy with a Guamanian using the SPAM® name, and Gerber eventually had to remove it from his boat. He thought the reason they didn’t want him to name his boat SPAM® was that if his boat sank the headline might be “10 people die on SPAM®” or some such similar wording.

Guam’s “SPAM® Identity” is not always viewed in a positive light. In 2000, an article in the Wall Street Journal declared Guam as struggling to “find its roots,” while mired underneath “a pile of SPAM®.” Meant to opine about Guam’s contradictions where activists fight for CHamoru self-determination, but cater to tourists at their regular jobs, and SPAM® is the local cuisine because the only other indigenous foods—fanihi (fruit bat) and sea turtle—are illegal to hunt and eat, the tone was reminiscent of other “Outsider” critiques of Pacific Islands and Pacific Islanders, where the islands are paradise but the people are faulted as being weak, helpless, ignorant or disempowered.

Reaction by readers on Guam was harsh. Such works, arguably, misrepresent the reality and complexity of the experiences of Pacific islanders and their historic struggles with colonialism, militarization and “development.” It is the same disrespect as seen in overblown stories of the invasive brown tree snake, meant to shock and humor people mostly unfamiliar with Guam or its history but at the expense of the island community.

In the lyrics for the CHamoru song, Baba I Tiempo (Bad Times), SPAM® is mentioned as one of the many things brought to the island through the course of development begun by the Navy. In the song, though, these benefits are seen for what they have also become to the CHamoru people: detriments to CHamoru health, values and ways of life.

Ho, Ho, Ho, bulachu, Ho, Ho, Ho, he is drunk,

Yanggen ginen i lanchu. When he comes home from the ranch,

Taya’ leche, taya’ Spam There’s no milk, there’s no Spam

Ai ai ai! Man ñalang ham!! Ai ai ai! We are all hungry!!

Baba I Tiempo, CHamoru song

Even then, CHamorus were aware that SPAM® and other highly processed foods like sugar, rice and soda have had detrimental effects on the physical health of many Guam residents, leading to high levels of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. These “emergency foods,” introduced through colonialism and militarization, are hard to give up, but many residents are rethinking food choices in favor of better health and finding ways to connect back to producing food from the land.

It’s all about the sizzle

SPAM® has a strange effect on people’s attitudes: it can give a group a sense of identity like any other shared interest, and even bind people together, but it has the same effect on its fans as it does on its detractors and there is no shortage of critics of the iconic luncheon meat. It’s full of contradictions.

SPAM® helped people survive war and starvation, but itself is not nutritionally healthy. It’s as American as apple pie, but has a much wider following internationally than in the US mainland. As a commodity, it represents American values, urbanization and development, capitalism and freedom, but at the same time, it masks the effects of US colonialism, as well as the disruption and destruction of Pacific culture by the same large military presence that brought it to the region. What’s more, SPAM®, in turn, is commodified by the islanders themselves to generate an identity that is developed and understood on their own terms, and at the same time, challenges western perceptions of Pacific islanders and of western hegemony in the region. Hormel advertises that “the SPAM® Brand Life is all about the sizzle.” Here in the Pacific, as long as you don’t eat it straight out of the can without preparing or cooking it first, you’ll fit right in with SPAM® culture.

SPAM®: Meat or myth?

Without looking at the can, most people would not be able to name the ingredients of SPAM®, and many would be hard-pressed to think of words to adequately describe its taste to those who have never tried it. The standard, “It tastes like chicken,” just doesn’t seem to apply and Hormel’s description that “It’s magic” seems a bit overboard. The two SPAM® haiku below, part of a promotional campaign decades ago, demonstrate the puzzlement people have over SPAM®’s contents, but also, its strangely appealing taste that leaves one asking for more:

Pink tender morsel

Glistening with salty gel.

What the hell is it?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ears, snouts and innards,

A homogeneous mass.

Pass another slice.

SPAM® is manufactured by Hormel Food Corporation, a Fortune 500 company based in Austin, Minnesota, that makes a variety of food and meat products. According to Hormel’s history, SPAM® was invented by Jay C. Hormel, son of the company’s founder, who was trying to find a way to use surplus pork shoulder. The name SPAM® was coined in a Hormel-sponsored contest back in 1936 by combining the two main ingredients: spices and ham. The $100 prize went to Kenneth Daigneau, the brother of a former vice-president of Hormel Foods.

So, while maybe not made from “ears or snouts,” or hooves, eyeballs or toenails, SPAM® has six ingredients, according to Hormel: pork with ham, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrite. However, a look at the label of a regular can of SPAM® or some of its variants may include other types of chemicals used as thickeners and preservatives: “Pork with Ham,” “Mechanically Separated Chicken,” Water, Salt, Sugar, Sodium Phosphates, Potassium Chloride and Sodium Ascorbate. A 12-ounce can of SPAM® contains 42 grams of protein. Prices on Guam range roughly anywhere from $2.50 to $3 a can as of 2021.

During processing, the ingredients are mixed together, formed and cooked in large ovens, then packed for distribution. As Hormel explains,

First, the pork and ham are pre-ground. Then, salt, sugar and the rest of the ingredients are added and mixed for 20 minutes, to reach the desired temperature. From there, the mixture is moved over to the canning line, where it’s filled into the familiar metal cans, 12 ounces at a time. Once filled, cans are conveyed to a closing machine where lids are applied through vacuum-sealing. Next, the cans are cooked and cooled for about three hours. At this point they’re nearly ready for enjoyment. But the cans can’t leave naked. Labels are applied and then they’re off to be cased, where they await distribution.

Hormel Foods

Because of the processing techniques, SPAM® has a long shelf-life and needs no refrigeration, as long as the cans are kept sealed. Contrary to popular belief, the shelf-life is not indefinite, and while there is no expiration date on the can, there is a processing date, and Hormel recommends that SPAM® be eaten within three to five years of processing “for maximum flavor.”

SPAM® facts

During World War II, SPAM® became a staple for soldiers and citizens caught up in the ravages of war. Undoubtedly, the “indefinite” shelf-life of SPAM® made it an ideal, convenient food for soldiers on the battle fronts, as well as for civilians suffering from food shortages in war-torn cities. Over 100,000,000 pounds of SPAM® was sent overseas to feed the troops. By 1959, the one-billionth can of SPAM® was processed. SPAM® trivia buffs claim that by 1970 two billion cans had been sold; three billion by 1980, four billion by 1986, and five billion by 1993, and as of 2021 over eight billion cans have been sold. Hormel boasts that there are 12.8 cans of SPAM® products eaten every second!

SPAM® is Hormel’s most widely recognized and consumed product since it was first marketed in 1937. Today, Hormel produces thirteen different varieties of SPAM®, including SPAM Lite®, 25% Less Sodium SPAM®, Oven Roasted Turkey SPAM®, SPAM Jalapeño®, SPAM Teriyaki® and SPAM® with Tocino seasoning. Indeed, SPAM® is enjoyed and sold in 44 different countries worldwide, and is even produced in manufacturing facilities outside of Hormel’s home base in Austin, with processing plants in Dubuque, Iowa, England, Australia, China, Denmark, Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Corporate advertising of SPAM® is surprisingly minimal, considering how many stores actually carry it (about 99% of grocery stores in the United States) and how many cans continue to be sold. The company has seen considerable growth and potential in SPAM® over the last few years, especially in the international market. In 2019, SPAM® sales in the US accounted for $220 million for Hormel Foods. However, its reputation as a highly processed food, the changing lifestyle trends towards better health in the United States, and competition from other similar food products have compelled Hormel to try new advertising strategies that emphasize SPAM®’s taste. In the late 1990s, Hormel pushed a “SPAM® Burger” campaign on network television, and more recently, produced a series of commercials that demonstrate the versatility of SPAM® in fried rice, tacos, fried SPAM® with eggs, and SPAM® sandwiches. The company’s latest taglines, “Sizzle Pork And Mmm” and “Don’t Knock It Til You’ve Fried It,” along with those commercials filled with tantalizing frying sounds, seem aimed at enticing people who have never desired to try it because of some revulsion for what SPAM® might contain, to finally take the plunge and break out their frying pans.

This revulsion against SPAM® —whether because of its questionable contents, taste, nutritional value, versatility and indefinite shelf-life—makes it fodder for jokes that poke fun at Hormel, the military, and of course, the people who eat it. It is even the term adopted by computer users to describe mass quantities of unsolicited junk e-mail. It is the kind of product people love to hate, or hate to admit they actually like. But SPAM® also has a lot of fans and many people have memories of eating it.

In fact, Hormel has capitalized on SPAM®’s nostalgic appeal and branched out to develop new ways of exploiting the luncheon meat’s popularity. In the late 1990s, the company began advertising “SPAM® Stuff”—clothing items and other “cool stuff” all emblazoned with the SPAM® logo, including caps, t-shirts, earrings and cookbooks—designed to attract old SPAM® fans as well as lure new buyers. Eventually, a SPAM® museum highlighting the product’s history was opened in Hormel’s original hometown of Austin.

Indeed, SPAM® is an intriguing subject for looking at food, culture and history, simply because it represents everything that is good and bad about American capitalism, consumerism and imperialism. Here, in this simple pink loaf of processed pork and spices, is a cultural icon, with numerous websites on the Internet both honoring and making fun of the world’s obsession with this little tin of Americana. And in the Pacific, where SPAM® is consumed in incredible quantities relative to the rest of the world, SPAM® is serious business.

By Dominica Tolentino

For further reading

Borugu, George. “Underlying Causes of Food Insecurity: Bias in Development.” PIN: Pacific Islands Nutrition, no. 26 (March 1995).

Cruikshank, Douglas. “Spam, LSD and Other Marvels of the Military: Turn on, Tune in, Fry up.” Honolulu Weekly, 22 July 1992.

Cruz, Manny. “Lasting Effects of Canned Foods Introduced During Guam’s Liberation.” Pacific Daily News, 6 January 2019.

Flores, Leah. “Shirley’s Fried Rice Recipe Featured on New Product.” Pacific Daily News, Lifestyle Fiesta Section, 28 January 2000.

Frank, Robert. “Guam Struggles to Find Its Roots.” The Wall Street Journal, 28 March 2000.

Hattori, AP, K. Camacho, E. Manibusan, J. Sablan, and M. Sasaki. “Guam, Mariana Islands.” In Resistance in Paradise: Rethinking 100 Years of U.S. Involvement in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Edited by Deborah Wei and Rachel Kamel. Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee and Office of Curriculum Support, 1998.

Hattori, Anne Perez. “Uncle S(p)am: The Expensive Costs of US Colonialism on Guam.” I estoria-ta Guam: The Mariana Islands and Chamorro Culture. Madrid: Anthropology National Museum, 2021.

Hau’ofa, Epeli. Corned Beef and Tapioca: A Report on the Food Distribution Systems in Tonga. Suva: University of the South Pacific, Centre for Applied Studies in Development, 1979.

Hormel Foods. “SPAM® Brand | Versatile Canned Meat Products and Recipes.” SPAM, 2021.

Jose, Randy. “Spam: ‘Steak in a Can’ for Many Islanders.” Pacific Magazine, November/December 1996.

Lyons, Paul. “From Man-Eaters to Spam-Eaters: Literary Tourism and the Discourse of Cannibalism from Herman Melville to Paul Theroux.” Arizona Quarterly 51, no. 2 (1995): 33-62.

Malcolm, Sheila H. The Diet of Mothers and Children on the Island of Guam. Technical Paper no. 113. Noumea: South Pacific Commission, 1958.

Thaman, Randolph R. “Deterioration of Traditional Food Systems, Increasing Malnutrition and Dependency in the Pacific Islands.” Journal of Food and Nutrition 39, no. 3 (1982): 109-121.