Last week, I cooked Spam. I opened the can, slid the rectangular cube of pink meat out, sliced it into thin slabs, and fried them lightly. I served the slices with white rice and some leftover braised lentils.
The last time I had Spam was a few months ago, in a ramen joint in the city, when one of the kids ordered an appetizer of Spam musubi, the Hawaiian roll of rice and Spam wrapped in nori. Before that, the last time was probably five or six years ago. I never cook it because, well, I try to minimize the eating of processed food. But that night in the ramen joint, when I bit into the soft, salty slice, I felt a jolt of recognition, as if, after many years, I met an old friend by accident.
It was, of course, tasty; that one bite had that orchestra of taste and mouthfeel—of a yielding but mouth-filling tenderness, of porky fat, of salt, of a thrum of sweetness—that only highly-processed foods can deliver. It was also achingly familiar. As a child in the Philippines, I ate Spam when my mom served it to us as a rare treat. We ate it the way we ate tapa or tocino or longganisa, with rice and eggs. As a young adult, I had it occasionally when I went out with one friend who loved to have it as a bar snack when we drank beer.
About a month ago, when I was cleaning out the pantry, I saw two cans of Spam at the back of the cabinet, behind a sack of rice and a liter of olive oil. I had forgotten they were there and I looked at them with wonder. I’m writing this even as I’m embarrassed by it. I’ve had these two cans of Spam for a few years, bought, along with a few gallons of water and some crackers, on a dark winter afternoon when a blizzard bore down on the city and panicky residents had cleaned out the nearby supermarket of food items to stock.
I decided, with really an absurd and inordinate amount of thinking and conflicting emotions, to cook one of the cans of Spam. I wanted it. I wanted a big porky bite of it, not the small measly taste of it I had with the Spam musubi. I wanted to eat it with white rice and a fried egg, maybe with ketchup. I wanted to eat it and feel that sense of familiarity again, that sense of going back in time.
But I kept forgetting or, when I remembered, I had something else prepared already. Many times, I couldn’t bring myself to cook it and serve it to my kids. On their website, the company boasts that Classic Spam only has six ingredients—pork with ham, salt, water, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrite.
It’s clear what the company is implying with this information. Michael Pollan, the influential food and nutrition writer, capped the number of ingredients of acceptable processed foods at five, and those five should be ingredients one can easily pronounce, preferably monosyllabic ones.
Classic Spam has a respectable six (“pork with ham” sounds suspicious, but never mind that), all of them easy to pronounce, with the only non-food-sounding one the sodium nitrite. But even that is familiar—problematic and controversial in its own way, but familiar.
From the website, we also learn that flavors have proliferated and that there are now fifteen varieties of them. One of them is tocino, created by the company to express their appreciation for the Philippines. The Philippines, in fact, is one of the countries so devoted to Spam that it has its own website (spam-ph.com).
One can enjoy the flavor and revel in the kitschiness of Spam. Spam is retro, trendy, and, most importantly, humble. The ramen joint where we ate the Spam musubi, for example, boasts of such carefully made food as pork broth simmered for ten hours, of hand-pulled noodles, of artisanal miso flown in from Japan. But they have Spam musubi because they’re also eclectic and democratic. The trendy Filipino restaurant we ate at a year or so ago had Spam fries in their menu. And Dale Talde, a well-known Filipino-American chef with restaurants in New York and other states, shares a recipe for spam and kimchi fried rice. It’s particularly popular in Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and the Philippines, supposedly because the Americans brought them during and after the second world war. If you look at the global map on the company website, you’ll see that the product is available in all of north America and all of Asia and Australia. It’s in the UK, but not in the rest of Europe. It cannot, I guess, really compete with prosciutto.
So last week, after weeks of waiting and pondering, I finally cooked Spam. We had leftover rice and braised lentils. If we were better, saner people, we would have just those two. But I cooked the Spam and presented it at the table. It was a Filipino meal not just because Filipinos love Spam, but also because the braised lentils and Spam slices somehow mirrored the Filipino dish of ginisang munggo and chicharron. I tried to explain it to the family, but they didn’t really care—they were just surprised and elated that, after five years, I cooked Spam again.
At the dinner table, I ate one slice and, in the kitchen after the meal, furtively nibbled at another one. I wish I can say that I’ve had my fill of the damned thing, but I can’t. I ate it, it was good, I wouldn’t mind having more. I read a long time ago about the actress Jennifer Aniston and how she would buy a bag of Doritos, eat a single chip, then throw the rest of the bag away. The anecdote pisses me off in the way that anecdotes of other people’s discipline and self-restraint piss me off.
If true, anyway, what Aniston does is highly unnatural (also bizarre and annoying, but I think I already said that). These foods, unfortunately enough, are engineered to make us consume more of them. The bliss point of processed food—that perfect balance of salt, sugar, fat, and mouthfeel—is the focus of attention of millions of dollars of industry research; of the collective intelligence of thousands of scientists, statisticians, and marketers; of the ambitions of ivy league-trained CEOs who have to answer to their shareholders.
In a 2013 article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food,” the journalist Michael Moss described what goes into the making of processed food. “Frito-Lay had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. Their tools included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point: people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.”
Spam, compared to the other processed foods, is even more problematic. It’s not even that it’s an unnatural and engineered food and that it’s unhealthy, it’s that its production is implicated in such problems as the ethics (or lack thereof) and environmental impact of the mass production of animals for human consumption, the use and abuse of undocumented workers, the countless instances of animal and human cruelty that have been reported inside factories.
In a Mother Jones report in 2011, the writer described the truth behind the innocuous pink cube inside the Spam can: “Every hour, more than 1,300 severed pork heads go sliding along the belt. Workers slice off the ears, clip the snouts, chisel the cheek meat. They scoop out the eyes, carve out the tongue, and scrape the palate meat from the roofs of mouths. Because, famously, all parts of a pig are edible (‘everything but the squeal,’ wisdom goes), nothing is wasted. A woman … would carve meat off the back of each head before letting the denuded skull slide down the conveyor and through an opening in a plexiglass shield.”
The truth behind the cheap price is that, on a regular day, almost twenty thousand animals are processed in a single factory, about five million a year, with workers forced to keep up with the unrelenting pace of the rather grisly work, despite illnesses, injuries, or any other expression of human frailty.
Dear reader, I apologize. I intended this piece to be much shorter, much simpler. I meant it to be a cute little essay, a rueful admission of a craving that many would understand and relate to. It was supposed to be the blog equivalent of a dish of Spam fries offered in a trendy restaurant—self-aware, ironic, playful.
I guess it’s appropriate that I bought the two cans of Spam as preparation for a natural disaster. With its preservatives (I bought my two cans years ago and it’s going to last until 2019) and problematic provenance, Spam seems the perfect food for a dystopian future that will involve rising sea levels, deadly mosquitoes, perhaps a zombie apocalypse.