Spam – fuel to fight a war

I was amused to find a history of Spam (the meat product, not the mass mail marketing) over at The Art of Manliness.  I particularly enjoyed reading the military history of Spam during World War II.

While spam was already a national hit by the time WWII began, the war would take its ubiquity to a whole new level. The military loved canned luncheon meat because it was nutritious, filling, cheap, easily transportable, and had an extremely long shelf-life. By the time the war was over, Hormel had provided 150 million pounds of meat to the war effort, and during that time, 90 percent of the company’s canned goods were going to the military.

While widespread dissemination of spam made Jay Hormel and his company rich, the soldiers on the receiving end of shipments were less happy about the canned meat’s infiltration of their rations. You would be too if it’s nearly all you ate for years on the front lines. It was meant to be served at bases and camps as a B ration along with a variety of other foods, but various distribution difficulties and other wartime issues meant that GIs were routinely getting served Spam 2-3 times per day. WWII veteran Thomas Clancy recalls, “You had it fried in the morning with chemical eggs. They burned it black as a painted door. They’d cut it up and put it into stews. They put it in sandwiches. They backed it with tomato sauce. They gave it to us on the beach. You got so you really hated it.”

Because of its pervasiveness overseas, it earned catchphrases like “ham that didn’t pass its physical,” “meat loaf without basic training,” and “the real reason war was hell.”

Unbeknownst to soldiers, though, military Spam was different than U.S. consumer Spam. It was sent in 6lb tins, didn’t contain ham, and was extra cooked and salted to deal with any bitter cold and brutally hot environment the meat might be found in. Although they weren’t getting “real” Spam, the soldiers spared no effort railing against it, writing up poems, drawing cartoons, and sending Jay Hormel thousands and thousands of hate-filled letters. One anonymous poem became especially (in)famous:

“For breakfast they will fry it;
For supper it is baked;
For dinner it goes delicate —
They have it pat-a-caked.
Next morning it’s with flapjacks,
Or maybe powdered eggs —
For God’s sake where do they get it?
It must come in by kegs.

Oh, surely for the evening meal
They’ll cook up something new!
But the cooks they are uncanny,
Now the Spam is in the stew.
And thus the endless cycle goes;
It never seems to cease —
There’s Spam in cake and Spam in pie
And Spam in rancid grease.”

Such scorn ate at Mr. Hormel. In an interview in 1945, he said “Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t have…” but couldn’t bear to finish the sentence. The interviewer noted “We got the distinct impression that being responsible for Spam might be too great a burden for any one man.”

Because of their distaste for Spam as a foodstuff, soldiers found a variety of other uses for it during wartime. Its greasy fattiness made it useful in numerous ways: as a skin conditioner, as gun lubricant, as waterproofing material for boots and tents, and even mixed with lighter fluid or gasoline as a candle. Some soldiers inked Spam slices to use as playing cards and were able to play poker with them for a period of multiple months. Even the discarded tins were repurposed to make pots and pans and even toy trains.

While the men who served abroad may have loathed it (for its repetition if nothing else), housewives both stateside and in England sung its praises. One British woman noted its “fragrant aroma” and also “its perfect flavour and texture”; another said that champagne and caviar didn’t stand up to “precious, succulent, beautiful Spam.” Rosie the Riveter even promoted the meat in one ad.

This dichotomy of course led to some misunderstandings at home. It was joked that a man’s worst nightmare would be coming home from the war only to find Spam on the plate for his first meal back:

There’s much more at the link.  Interesting (and sometimes, as above, amusing) reading.



  1. My Dad owned the city bus line in Austin, MN, during WW2. He operated 24 hours a day hauling workers to and from the Hormel plant since gasoline and tires were hard to come by. He was from Germany so he knew how to deal with the jews to obtain gasoline and tires.

  2. Personally, I like Spam. But eating it every day for months on end would get tiring. In college I ate too much mac & cheese, it took me years before I would willingly eat it again.

    One thing I was surprised to find out from one of my anthropology courses is that Pacific Islanders really like it. That and cold spaghetti-O's are apparently popular staples a lot of places the US Marines were at in WWII.

  3. The CEO of the shipping company I used to work for sent me a full gross of spam cans once. I bitched on my blog that they sent us turducken instead of turkey for Thanksgiving, and someone sent him the link. The case came wrapped with a big red bow and explicit orders to the captain of my ship that I was to have nothing for dinner but spam until the case was finished. Luckily, there's an archaic law about providing variety in a sailor's diet so we had spam occasionally as a breakfast side, and it was gifted to the Filipinos on board, who prize it as a relish to go with balut.

  4. my dad [wwII, air force, england] loved spam.

    but my mother overdid it in his brown bag lunch.
    one day he said could he have something other than spam in his sandwich?
    she looked troubled and said i thought you liked spam?
    he said yes but not every day for five years!
    mother is not imaginative!![ understatement!]

  5. My father was a WWII Navy vet. I did not taste Spam until I was on my own and bought a can out of curiosity. Didn't buy another can until I wanted to try musubi. As far as I can tell that is the only way to eat the stuff.

    I have a question for your readers how may of you that are Viet Nam vets are peculiar about your fried chicken? My brother was a Marine. The only fried chicken he would eat was Mother's. He wouldn't eat his wife's until she came to the house and learned to fry chicken from Mother.

  6. Mid 70's at the Subic Bay Ship Repair Facility.
    There was a hole in the wall sandwich shop that was mostly for the Filipinos who worked there. Many of these workers were paid local wages (not much) and in Peso's too.
    The sandwich shop made a toasted, fried Spam, egg, cheese and hot pepper sandwich that was affordable for those workers.
    I ate many of these sandwich's while I was there and I still make and like them.

  7. My father lived on Spam in the So. Pacific as a Marine in WWII.
    Got sick and tired of it until the brought in mutton from New Zealand.
    The mutton was so bad that suddenly the Spam tasted like roast beef.


  8. SPAM musubi, SPAM yakisoba, Korean Army Base Stew(SPAM & cut up wieners), and my favorite: SPAM and pineapple kebobs wit a light teriyaki glaze. Dang! Now I'm hungry.

  9. Spam IS godsend in hot humid places where you still want to eat pork but cannot afford to slaughter one every time. And where refrigeration is spotty at best. That annld where American serviceman have gone through, we brought it to the local cuisine.

  10. I visited the SPAM museum in Austin, MN several years ago and they had a letter from Stalin on display thanking them for sending over SPAM.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *