How Spam Became an Essential Part of Hawaii’s Cuisine

  • 23 June 2022
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How Spam Became an Essential Part of Hawaii’s Cuisine

Last week, before the Georgia runoff elections, my colleague shared a mailer that her parents-who live in suburban Atlanta-received from a group opposing the election of Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the United States Senate. The imagery was baffling, to say to least. It depicted a multi-generational white family seated at a festively-laid table near a stocking-bedecked mantelpiece. They smiled widely at their ed toothily as she presented on a platter what appeared to be an industrial-sized tin of Spam.

“Christmas could look very different next year,” should Warnock and Ossoff (depicted in inset photos at the far left edge of the table) be elected, cautioned the language on the card. But what the heck does that have to do with canned meat? Was the iconic American product, first introduced in 1937 by the Hormel company, going to be sent to every household in a porky incarnation of the historical “chicken in every pot” promise? Was there a looming turkey shortage thwartable only by their GOP opponents, David Perdue (no relation to the poultry dynasty) and WNBA team owner Kelly Loeffler? Was the local Georgia GOP just being super-classist about tinned pork?

The true root of the island’s love for SPAM® products goes back to World War II, when the luncheon meat was served to GIs

Unclear! But chef and Spam evangelist Kiki Aranita-who split her time growing up between Hawaii and Hong Kong-was about to call in to the Communal Table podcast to talk about closing her Hawaii-centric Philadelphia restaurant Poi Dog and her new venture selling sauces, so it seemed wise to ask her what the heck she thought it meant, and why Spam is such a staple in Hawaii.

In Hawaii we have a mild hoarding syndrome whenever there’s a national disaster or a natural disaster or any kind of disaster

“We know what you’re thinking; SPAM® products must grow on trees there. That would be neat, but to believe it you must have taken a coconut to the head. By the end of the war, SPAM® products were adopted into local culture, with Fried SPAM® Classic and rice becoming a popular meal. The unique flavor quickly found its way into other Hawaiian cuisine, from SPAM® Fried Wontons to SPAM® Musubi, and SPAM® products became a fixture for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Today you’ll find SPAM® dishes served everywhere from convenience stores to restaurants, reflecting a demand that is unmatched by any place in the world.”

If I saw a postcard like that, I’d think, nice work. Spam. Cool. That’s great. We had a Spam shortage recently, so this is good news. Hawaii has always had a food culture that embraces a lot of influences. It has embraced no other foreign resource more than Spam. I remember growing up with Spam and it may have been as an adult that I finally realized that Spam was not originally from Hawaii. I just assumed that it was a Hawaii thing. It felt strange to me that it was from a strange place, a mysterious place that I’ve never been to on the mainland. Apparently there’s a Spam museum that I’ve never been to. All of these are legends to me. You know?

My generation doesn’t think of Spam as coming from someplace else. We think of it as something that belongs to Hawaii. My dad feels the same about Vienna sausages. Spam came to him slightly later in life. For him growing up it was always canned foods, like Vienna sausages. It sends people to the store to buy toilet paper and Spam. Those are our two staples in life.