Spamming the Islands: The Cultural Capital of Spam in the Hawaiian Islands

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Selection of Spam at a supermarket in Hawai‘i.

Before each of my elementary school field trips, my mother would wake up at five o’clock in the morning. She would don her bright pink bathrobe, trudge down the stairs, and turn on the rice cooker that housed the rice she had washed the night before. This was the first step to making the spam musubi that I would later enjoy at my field trip to the Honolulu Zoo or the Arizona Memorial.

Growing up in Hawai‘i, Spam is omnipresent. You can purchase Spam, eggs, and rice at McDonald’s. You can walk into a Zippy’s, the best—and arguably most popular—fast food that the islands have to offer, and purchase a Zip Pac, which will result in you receiving rice, a piece of fried chicken, a filet of battered fish, a slice of teriyaki beef, and, of course, a serving of spam. You can even go to Alan Wong’s, one of the premier restaurants in Hawai‘i, and order spong, Alan Wong’s take on the local delicacy that is spam. But if this is not enough to fully satisfy your hunger for Spam, you can attend an annual “Spam Jam”, where you can showcase your dedication to the canned meat. You would not be alone in your enthisua-“spam”. Last year, an estimated 25,000 people showed up to this spam celebration (“spam”-lebration?) of commercial food.

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Flyer advertising the serving of Spam, Eggs & Rice on the McDonald’s Breakfast Menu.

I have many fond memories associated with Spam. Many of the weekends I spent with my father involved going to McDonald’s and ordering a plate of Spam, eggs, and rice. After church (and a nutritious breakfast of Dunkin’ Donuts), my father and I would go (or, as my haole dad liked to say, hele on) to the 7-11 across the street and purchase a spam musubi. My mother lovingly woke up early to make spam musubis before my field trips, beach runs, and athletic events. She incorporated Spam into many of her dishes, from corn chowder to fried rice. For me, Spam represents spending time with my family. Spam reminds me of the humid air and hot Hawaiian sun on my bare shoulders as I sat next to my sister and scarfed down a spam musubi before running away from our picnic bench back to the ocean. There is a certain nostalgia I feel when I smell Spam sizzling on a pan while rice steams next to it, the kind of nostalgia that makes me wish that I was six years old again sitting on the counter while my mother used her rudimentary plastic sushi-maker to assemble my lunch.

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My childhood self enjoying a Spam, Eggs, and Rice breakfast plate from McDonald’s.

I am not the only person to feel this kind of connection to Spam. If quantity of consumption is any indication, the people of Hawai‘i eat more spam than the people of any other state, devouring an estimated 5 million pounds of it per year. Many people, including those who have never been to Hawai‘i, have strong opinions about Spam, with the dish inspiring comedians from Weird Al to Monty Python.

However, unlike many of the other dishes that are so common in the great melting pot that is Hawai‘i, Spam, at least at first glance, does not seem to have any cultural roots in its history. My Native Hawaiian ancestors did not eat Spam when Kamehameha united the islands. My Japanese ancestors did not bring Spam with them when they escaped persecution at the hands of a new political regime. As often happens, it is my haole, or white, background that is to be blamed for Spam.

Indeed, the history of Spam in Hawai‘i is one that cannot exist separately from its larger socio-political implications. The common story behind the popularity of the canned food in the Hawaiian Islands is that American soldiers brought Spam to Hawai‘i with them during World War II. The Spam website simply states that during WWII, American GIs ate Spam in the islands and it was later incorporated into the local diet. Another, almost more plausible, answer is that Spam gained its cultural foothold in the Hawaiian Islands during the implementation of fishing restrictions in Hawai‘i. Because these fishing restrictions targeted Japanese-American fishermen, fish, the main source of protein in the diets of many Hawai‘i residents, especially those of Japanese descent, was no longer abundant. As a result, many Japanese-Americans supplemented their diets with Spam, and its low cost led to increased popularity for the canned food in what would later become the 50th state.

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Image of a Spam can showing different flavors and recipe ideas.

Spam boasts 22 flavors, ranging from classic Spam to cheese-flavored Spam to Spam spread, a product that even an avid Spam fan like me hopes never to encounter. Hawai‘i even has its own Spam flavor, the Portuguese Sausage flavor, to honor the state’s steadfast devotion to the luncheon meat. Spam came to the islands in an inorganic way, and the inorganic product continues to occupy a major section in Hawai‘i’s grocery aisles. The backs of Spam cans suggest new ways of incorporating Spam into the consumer’s diet, recommending chopping blocks of Spam and mixing it into Mac n’ Cheese or “jazzing” up a grilled cheese by slapping a slice of Hawai‘i’s favorite luncheon meat on the otherwise incomplete sandwich. Spam is obviously unhealthy: a serving size of the low-sodium version contains 180 calories, 16 g of fat, and 580 mg of sodium; but still, the people of Hawai‘i consume Spam. Even outside of its negative nutritional implications, Spam tells an unnerving story about the corporate influence on the diets of people who have been conditioned to like a food they likely would not have otherwise eaten.

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Nutrition Facts for Spam: Low Sodium.

Spam has become a cultural touchstone for people from Hawai‘i; however, there seems to be no simple answer to the question of how we developed a taste for this dish. Can a food that is so linked to corporate control of the food system and so far removed from the diets of my Hawaiian ancestors be integrated into cultural memory ? Moreover, the military presence that allegedly brought Spam to the islands is inherently linked to issues of colonialism, political upheaval, and monarchical overthrow in Hawai‘i: can anyone who understands the history of the United States in Hawai‘i knowingly enjoy a product that has been heavily marketed toward us since? Are the people of Hawai‘i actually making an autonomous choice when they eat Spam, or are they simply following the predetermined menu created for them by a Corporate America that cares more about its pocketbook than the welfare of its consumers?

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The fried rice I made with the Spam my family sent me from Hawai‘i and the picture I sent my family when I received their care package.

Spam, which once seemed to be innocuous, continues to play a role in my life even now that I’ve migrated to the “mainland,” or the continental United States. During my freshman year at the University of San Francisco, I received a care package from my family in Hawai‘i that included none other than a can of Spam. I sent my family a picture of me holding the can of Spam and another picture of the improvised fried rice I made using Spam, microwavable rice, and vegetables from the salad bar in the cafeteria. The next day, my aunt called me.

“Does it taste the same on the mainland as it did in Hawai‘i?” She joked, sounding exactly the way she had over the phone when I used to talk to her as a child.

Yes, I assured her. It had. As I spoke to her, though, I realized that it had not been the Spam I had missed, per se, but the evenings I had spent talking to her on the phone, or the mornings I had spent watching reruns of J.A.G. with my mom while we watched the sun rise. These were the things that I had missed, and Spam had simply found an effective way of implanting itself within these memories. Since coming to this realization, I have tried to answer a few questions: first, in the pursuit of real food, does Spam still have a place in my diet? And second, does a food with so problematic a history deserve a seat in our cultural cuisine? Until I reach an conclusion, all the Spam found in care packages I receive from Hawai‘i will remain untouched while the memories I have of eating Spam and living in Hawai‘i remain perfectly intact.

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The first meal my mom cooked for me after arriving in California.