Spam isn’t on the menu just at Coconut Club—a Hawaii-inspired spot that seeks to bring vacation vibes to D.C. through poke, fish fresh from the islands, and a section of the menu dedicated to Spam—wrote Adele Chapin in the Washington Post’s Going Out Guide late last week; Spam is all over the city.
Hailing Spam as “the latest trend at D.C. restaurants,” Chapin rounded up spots around the D.C. area that serve dishes like Hawaii’s Spam musubi and Korea’s budae jjigae (“army base stew”). As a guide, the piece relies on the assumption that people probably aren’t yet eating Spam, a canned pork product that has been around since 1937 and is eaten worldwide. Despite the menus hawking “free-range chicken and grass-fed beef,” Chapin wrote, “D.C. diners are falling for [Spam’s] simple pleasures.”
Chapin’s piece was the second time last week that Spam got some shine. Just the day before, Fast Company included Spam in a list of Instagram food trends. “Spam is making a comeback thanks to fusion varieties, like the Hawaii import Spam musubi,” wrote Rina Raphael. To be fair to both forecasters, Spam’s rediscovery isn’t totally new: Gothamist covered Spam’s Brooklyn comeback in 2014, and the trendy Los Angeles restaurant Animal has been playing around with it for a decade.
Despite that, Spam dishes continue to be hailed as new discoveries, and it continues to frustrate those who have been eating Spam for decades. To myself, and others in Asian and Asian-American communities, the framing of Spam as a rising food trend feels like yet another frustrating example of “Columbusing.” The tongue-in-cheek phrase has come to refer to the “discovery” of trends, foods, and practices that have existed for a long time, but outside the white, American mainstream. When those things enter the domain of a white, middle-class demographic, they’re framed as a revelation, like turmeric, chai, coconut oil, and moringa—all used for centuries in their respective communities of origin, but “discovered” as superfoods and trends.
The chief irony in Columbusing Spam is that Spam is American. As some people, like Philip Yu of Angry Asian Man, were quick to point out, turning Spam into a trend for American readers highlights an interesting turn of colonialism: Spam goes full circle in a culinary globalism that started with America’s imperialist practices in the 20th century.
Spam flourished in Korea, Hawaii, the Philippines, and through the Pacific Islands because American soldiers, relying on the non-perishable meat for sustenance, brought Spam there during times of war and occupation thereafter. Eventually, as Elaine Castillo wrote for Taste, the Americans who stationed themselves abroad considered the canned foods that they had introduced with disdain. “It is no easy task to entertain…with inefficient servants, and the harassing question of getting something new to eat in a place where tinned milk and canned goods form one’s chief supply for dinner parties,” wrote Edith Moses, the wife of an American official stationed in the Philippines, in 1908.
Though Americans tired of them, those canned goods—including Spam, corned beef, and Vienna sausages—were considered an “exotic, cosmopolitan luxury to the wealthy Filipinos who could obtain them,” Castillo wrote. Filipinos transformed them into a part of the cuisine, putting Spam on the breakfast table atop rice and eggs. The story is similar in other sites of American occupation, like Hawaii, South Korea, and Guam: where Spam became a culinary staple as locals transformed the American product into dishes that were distinctly of new cultures.
As in the Philippines, Spam was seen as a luxury in South Korea as a result of the Korean War, and the continued American presence after. A South Korean veteran named Kim Jong-sik told the New York Times in 2014 that, for a time, canned goods bought at American Army exchange stores were the only way to get meat. He recalled that, during those days, children sometimes found Spam, burgers, and sausage in dumpsters of the American Army, and sold the scraps to restaurants—who turned them into the aforementioned budae jjigae. Over time, Spam transformed further into street food, versions of kimchi fried rice, and gifts for Lunar New Year. With all those riffs on Spam, South Korea held the world’s second-highest Spam consumption as recently as 2015, according to NPR.
In Hawaii, Spam’s story is similar, still. In a piece for MUNCHIES, chef Mark Noguchi called Spam the islands’ blessing for its representation of the strength of Hawaiians through WWII. Not only did American troops eat the food themselves, but according to Noguchi, Hawaiians faced strict rationing during the war. As it became more unclear when the islands’ next shipment of food and supplies might arrive, people stocked up on Spam, which lasted long. They put it on rice and wrapped it in seaweed as musubi, and added it to fried rice, sandwiches, and more. Hawaii’s population of about 1.4 million eats an estimated 7 million cans per year.
There’s an interesting irony in the fact that Americans were the ones to introduce Spam to countries abroad, only to then cast off those canned goods, and for it to all to return, in 2019, to Americans re-discovering Spam, in its internationally-interpreted form.
In the United States, Spam has always remained on shelves, but by and large, at least for the past few decades, it hasn’t been looked on with discovery or delight. Processed canned meats don’t quite fit into trends toward sourcing, transparency, and health.
It doesn’t help that canned meats tend to be associated with cost-cutting; when meat prices went up and the economy struggled during the 2008 recession, Erin DeJesus wrote for Eater, Spam sales rose 10 percent. As DeJesus wrote, Spam has always straddled the line between the highbrow and the lowbrow. It makes sense, then, for the people reading the Post or Fast Company for dining advice, that Spam becomes worthy of attention when it ventures into the world of higher-end dining.
Honestly, the dishes at Coconut Club, or anywhere on the Post’s list, sound totally fine to me. But heralding these dishes as just the latest thing turns them into foods to be eaten without regard for context and history. Portraying Spam as simply a food trend—one that’s swayed by other trends being “over,” or motivated by Instagram—ignores the fact that Spam carries decades of cultural significance and meaning for cultures worldwide. Eating without context ignores the damage that America’s imperialist past wrought globally.
Spam has been around longer than many of us, and its roots are deeper than just a fleeting trend.