Cordova Chronicles: Duck season a great excuse to re-visit camp classic, Spam

Mention Spam these days, and many folks, especially of the younger generation, think you are referring to unsolicited, undesired or illegal email, often flooding your computer with the same message, meaning you have been “spammed.”

Believe it or not, recently I was spammed while helping Randy Bruce repair his duck cabin outhouse. We were fixing a rotten back wall on a sunny day down at the mouth of Eyak River.

We had been at it for several hours, and the project was coming along nicely. When it comes to duck shacks and outhouses, there are no building codes. Randy asked me if it was lunchtime, and if so, would I like a sandwich. I said sure, sounds good. We went in his cabin to get away from the “no-see-ums,” he banged around by the sink counter a bit, and proffered me two slices of white bread with a couple slabs of Spam and a bit of mustard in between.

Sorry, I forgot to bring down the mayo. No problem. Looks good. I licked my chops, and took a hefty bite. What do you think? Awesome. Best Spam sandwich I’ve had in a long time. Which was true.

For many years, Spam was a duck cabin staple, what with no refrigeration or ways to store perishables. It was inexpensive and had a shelf life of decades. After the advent of propane refrigeration, consumption dropped dramatically.

However, a couple years ago, we were stuck our Pete Dahl cabin an extra day when my trusty 70 hp Johnson wouldn’t start. No problem. We had leftovers for dinner, and I found a can of Hormel’s Finest on a shelf.  I fried it up with some eggs for breakfast. My daughter Gretchen commented, “Hey, I’d forgotten how good Spam is. We should eat it more often.” Ellie chomped down a chunk covered in ketchup, and added, “Yes, Grampa, this is pretty good.”

Spam played an important role in the early days of my marriage. Fresh out of Oregon State, I took a teaching job in Hawaii back in 1967. I received a paycheck in the sum of $162 every two weeks. Our rent was $150. A favorite meal after we paid the rent was baked Spam, adorned with slices from a pineapple we had robbed from nearby Dole Fields, and a maraschino cherry on top. Sue would serve it like baked ham, we would carefully slice it, and over candlelight and Ripple wine comment on how delicious it tasted. Ah, the good old days.

More than once, usually at the duck cabin, a debate would develop over the origins of Spam, both as a product and an acronym.

Enter Wikipedia. “Spam is a brand of canned precooked meat made by Hormel Foods. It was first introduced in 1937 and gained popularity worldwide after it was used during World War II.”

It’s main ingredients are listed as “Boston butt” and ham.  Hmm.  Think about that.  More specifically, the basic ingredients are pork shoulder meat, with ham (how much?), added salt, modified potato starch as a binder, sugar and sodium nitrite as a preservative. The gelatin in the can forms during the cooking process. Its nutritional values have been criticized due to the high content of fat, sodium and preservatives.

Ken Daigneau, brother of a Hormel company executive, won a $100 prize in a 1937 competition to name the new product. To this day, Hormel claims the meaning of the name “is known only by a small circle of former Hormel Food executives.”

A number of popular guesses about the name include “SPiced hAM”, “Shoulder of Pork and hAM”, “Specially Processed American Meat”, “Specially Processed Army Meat”, and my favorite, “SPAre Meat.”

A staple of their diet, soldiers in WWII referred to it as “ham that didn’t pass its physical” or “meatloaf without basic training.” The U.S. also spammed its WWII Allies. Former Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev declared “Without Spam we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.”

In the 1980s British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher referred to it as a “wartime delicacy.”

Spam continues to retain its popularity. There are several Spam cookbooks on the market and sales continue to grow. Statistics from the 1990’s reveal that 3.8 cans of Spam were consumed every second in the U.S., totaling 122 million cans annually. There is even a Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, where the Spamettes sing about Spam in parodies of popular songs, first performed in the 1990 Spam Jam. Spam is especially popular in Hawaii, with the highest per capita consumption in the U.S. A popular island dish is Spam musubi, in which cooked spam is place atop rice and wrapped with a band of dried seaweed.

While we were finishing our Spam sandwich down river, Randy mentioned that there are now several different flavors of Spam available, which almost caused me to choke of my plain basic version. He proudly displayed several varieties off his cabin shelf, and described discounts available for bulk purchases. Locally, Nicholas Front Door features 10 different models.

The official Hormel Spam website lists 18 different varieties. Several caught my eye, including  Spam Chorizo, Spam Macadamia Nuts, Jalapeño Spam, Spam Tocino, and unbelievably, Spam Lite. Obviously Hormel now has a worldwide market for its famous product.

My favorite on the list is Spam Spread, marketed with the clever slogan: “If you’re a spreader, not a slicer”.

Any way you slice it, SPAM is here to stay, and each can brings back a flood of  delicious memories.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.