Dear bougie white people of America—
I am a SPAM®-Eater—and I am not ashamed.
Yes, you read that right. I eat Spam. You know, that pink processed meat product that comes in a rectangular blue-labeled tin, iconic yellow letters in all caps plastered on the front. It’s a product that people love to hate for its ambiguous factory origins (even though Spam is eaten by people of color in numerous locales around the world, like Guam, Puerto Rico, Asia, and Hawai’i, to name a few).
More often than not, the question surrounding Spam is charged with a mixture of fear and revulsion: What exactly is that stuff? A wrinkling of the nose, a turning away in disgust—then SPAM®-Eater Shaming ensues.
Oh white people, in your minds, Spam is not akin to the juicy wild mango or the latest “newly rediscovered” ancient grain that food writers love to fawn over. But your clean eating is more than just a healthy living habit; it is also a way that the colonialist traditions put in place by white America continue to haunt people of color. Still, shame or not, I have eaten Spam since I was a child, eat Spam as an adult, and will continue to eat Spam for the foreseeable future.
You might be wondering why I’ve chosen to expose my body to what is possibly some radioactive substance disguised as food. No doubt, it looks funny. Who in their right mind would eat a gelatinous marbled meat cube?
It’s not as simple as that. To you, Spam is not some exotic delicacy up for grabs for you to culturally appropriate. But Spam is not your bitch, not your prize, not the next addition to your lunchtime Buddhabowl. In fact, your disdain for Spam reveals so much about the position of privilege and power that you and the rest of bougie white America possess.
If you’re thinking Why should I care? at this point, I’ll tell you: it’s because shaming people for eating Spam and other “undesirable” food shows your outdated Orientalism, your high horse, your contempt for all things “un-American”—in short, it shows the imbalance in a power dynamic that not only denigrates people of color, but also stems from the American colonial systems historically put in place to subjugate POCs.
Dear misinformed white people—
Let’s go back to the beginning, to the root of the matter: why people of color eat Spam in the first place.
In 1935, the US government created a directive that required all studies on food preservation science at the time be focused on improving combat rations, perhaps in anticipation of World War II. Then, in 1937, Hormel Foods Corporation first introduced Spam as a way to increase the sale of pork shoulder, an unpopular cut. Spam was eaten by US civilians and soldiers, alike, the latter consuming more than twice the meat of the average civilian. During the Great Depression, Spam became a staple of the American diet. A fact forgotten or ignored by those who seek to shame Other Spam-Eaters.
With wartime also comes hardship, perhaps more so on foreign soil. Born in 1913, my own grandfather, a proud Filipino man who was a quarter Spanish (the Philippines was under Spanish colonial rule for 333 years—mine is a bastard country), often recounted how the Japanese occupation of my island nation, followed by the US occupation that lasted until 1946, left many Filipinos in a time of great need. He’d tell me of his and others’ constant fear of being displaced due to the threat of air raids. He’d recall the shame of being under yet another foreign country’s rigid rule. And he’d sadly remember the general lack of basic resources—water, shelter—and food.
Imagine what it was like for civilians in such countries as Korea and the Philippines when, during such US military occupations due to various wars in Asia and the Pacific, American soldiers seemed to be eating much better than the native population. What luxury amid such strife! When Spam was introduced to the Philippine populace (i.e., smuggled out of US bases), no wonder my people clung to it like it was gold.
Dear white readers, editors, and picky “cultural consumers” of my culture who only want my “international flavor” if it’s “palatable”—
As a writer in an MFA program and an amateur “foodie,” I have often struggled with what to edit out and what to reveal when I write about my culture and my eating habits. Food is such an integral part of a person’s social and cultural life, and my upbringing in the Philippines is no exception.
I am not the only writer or creative of color who has grappled with the shame that POC are made to feel when attempting to talk about where they come from. As if the parts of ourselves that are both our most precious and that we are also willing to share with the world are somehow “unsavory” or not for the “general audience.” I challenge the idea that these intimate parts of ourselves are not worth sharing, or that a writer of color should “edit” them out. In the past I was encouraged to “streamline” my poetry so that the general audience would not only understand every foreign word, but also so that the weird parts, the grisly parts, the not-so-savory parts, were watered down, diluted. “Americanized.”
It’s like going to a new Thai restaurant only to find that their “Thai extra hot” spiciness level is only equivalent to that of ketchup. It always makes me sad, makes me think two things: 1) that a foreign culture is worth diluting, and 2) that white people somehow need to have their hands held. It’s degrading on both sides of the fence.
Dear hypocritical white people—
Spam comes in at least sixteen different varieties: SPAM® Classic, SPAM® Lite, SPAM® Less Sodium, SPAM® with Real Hormel Bacon, SPAM® Oven Roasted Turkey, SPAM® Hickory Smoke, SPAM® Hot and Spicy, SPAM® Jalapeño, SPAM® Teriyaki, SPAM® Black Pepper, SPAM® Chorizo, SPAM® with Portuguese Sausage Seasoning, SPAM® Tocino (based on a sweet, ham-like pork Filipino dish), SPAM® Garlic, SPAM® with Cheese, SPAM® Spread, and SPAM® Mezclita (a cheesy spread influenced by Puerto Rican flavors).
Spam is said to be many things. Spiced Ham. Shaped Pork Approximating Man. Salted Pork And More. Squirrel Possum And Mouse.
But Spam is affordable. Spam is accessible, transportable. Spam has an extended shelf life and does not need refrigeration until opened. Thus, Spam is extremely popular in poorer areas of the US and the UK, not to mention the global diaspora of immigrants.
In Guam, for example, Spam is popular and widely eaten due to the tinned meat also being introduced to the native population during WWII, following the country’s liberation from Japanese control by US forces. A similar scenario as the ones in Asia ensued: the people of Guam, having been through hardships under Japanese occupation, desperately needed food, so US marines ended up passing out Spam from their K-rations, or combat rations. It’s funny how members of the US military chose to give out to people of color what is now deemed as substandard food.
According to Linda Civitello in her book Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, Spam was so ubiquitous in the US in the 1940s that Uncle Sam was sometimes called “Uncle Spam.” Nothing is more American than Uncle S(p)am.
SPAM® lists its main ingredients as pork, with ham meat added, salt, water, modified potato starch as a binder, sugar, and sodium nitrite as a preservative. But according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, common hot dog ingredients include, but are not limited to, mechanically separated meat, lean finely textured beef (also called “pink slime”), reconstituted or emulsified meat (also known as “meat slurry”), various flavorings, and preservatives. In reality, Spam is nutritionally comparable to not only hot dogs, but to other favorite “American” foods like burgers and fried chicken.
In regard to nutrition, foods that are so integral to the American identity are no better than Spam. So why the stigma towards my Spam-Fam?
Dear white people who have unknowingly but repeatedly shamed people of color—
Puerto Rican and Filipino writer Kristin Naca writes in her piece “Eating Lorca: Nouns You Can Smell” that her body is one that “prefers a diet of peasant food,” and that her “blood rejects meat [she] can’t tie to a death.” She describes how only “hot blood satisfies the duende” (a dark elfin spirit or power in Philippine folklore):
…pork flush with iron; phosphorous blooming from fish; plantains blackened and deflating in a box. Over weeks, bacteria break down the banana’s woody cells and excrete the sour waste you crave.
People of color are used to this visceral way of eating, this closeness to “meat so sweet it glows in your mouth.” Not because we prefer to eat “substandard” or “gross” food, but because we have a connection to the cultures and places from which our foods stem—a connection that was borne out of necessity and not just a sense of pleasure or enjoyment. But it has transformed into just that—a pleasurable thing, interwoven with our sense of identity within our respective cultures.
In popular media, there is only just now a tentative acceptance of what chef David Chang calls “ugly delicious”—a phrase which is also the name of his Netflix series in which Chang has a “no apologies” attitude when presenting food in its most deliciously unedited, unglamorized form. The show makes no attempt to cover the flaws or dismiss the origins of the various dishes that Chang focuses on in each episode. For example, according to The New Yorker’s review of the show, the episode about fried rice is “about fried rice, a little bit, but it’s actually about the juggling act of assimilation and how Chinese cooking is devalued in the culinary canon.”
Dear white people who tell POCs to amend their cultural identities—
I have been called a dog-eater. I have been ridiculed for eating dinuguan, a Filipino pork blood stew. I have been questioned for munching on chicharon, or pork cracklings—a snack that brings back fond memories of my childhood in the Philippines. And I have associations with all such instances of shaming when a white person finds me eating Spam. More often than not, it ends in derisive laughter.
I remember enjoying Spam as a child. I remember my grandmother chopping the meat up, sautéing it, and serving it alongside hot rice and scrambled eggs for breakfast. If we ran out of fresh food during the week, or if we just felt like it, we would make Spam-based dishes. We’d get creative and make Spam stir-fries or add it to soups and stews. It wasn’t roast pork tenderloin or glazed spiral ham, but we made do. And yes, we liked it.
In Hawai’i, Spam is sold at McDonald’s and other restaurants, where they serve it as, among other forms, Spam musubi—a sushi-inspired concoction of rice and Spam wrapped in a strip of seaweed. In Korea, Spam is given to others on special occasions, often in gift sets. And in Puerto Rico, Spam is eaten in sandwich form with cheese and pimientos.
Condescension and disgust on your part is just another way the power imbalance between white people and people of color is revealed. It’s a way in which, for the most part, white people dismiss and deny the “Other” by uplifting their own and denigrating the rest of us. And it’s a form of mocking those who, through history, have had a complicated relationship with food and culture—culture that has, more often than not, been subjugated at the hands of white people.
Oh, dear white people, why you gotta hate on my Spam-Fam? Why do you pick on us, attack our sensibilities as if to the point of moral judgment? You pick and choose which “exotic” foods to culturally appropriate, but then belittle us for the things you don’t like? I don’t think so.
… SPAM® may have been responsible for Hitler’s defeat. The Allies would not have won WWII without SPAM®. Plus, it’s processed so I guess we can keep it forever right?
I guess the only other question to answer now is whether Spam is actually any good. Personally? I think Spam tastes great.
So before you joke that Some People Are Missing as I eat my tasty Spam meatballs, my scrumptious Spam casseroles, my heavenly Spam and cheese sandwiches, think about all the people who consume Spam—often, poor and hungry people of color who have fewer options—and why they consume Spam at all. We’ve learned to make do with what we have and make the most of it.
So check your privilege. Know your Spam. And if you’re brave, come and join my Spam-Fam.
Your Friendly Neighborhood SPAM®-Eater
JOSEPHINE “INA” CARIÑO‘s work has appeared in such journals as Raleigh Review, New American Fiction (New Rivers Press), One (Jacar Press), and december Magazine, among others. Her poem “Feast” won the inaugural 2018 Sundress Publications broadside contest. Influenced by the natural backdrop of her childhood home in the mountains of the Philippines, Ina draws on both nature imagery and folklore in her work. She currently resides in Raleigh, NC, where she is pursuing her MFA in creative writing at North Carolina State University. You can read her work on her website.