Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 28, 1999
Head: Spam I Am
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Spam, one of the most ridiculed foods of our century, has been honored with its own biography. The author, Carolyn Wyman, was raised on Spam sandwiches and casseroles and still loves it. Wyman writes a syndicated newspaper column reviewing new processed foods.
Spam was invented in 1937 and, as one of the first canned meats, became a staple for soldiers and many civilians during World War II. Here's Monty Python's tribute to Spam.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Morning.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Morning.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What have you got?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Well, there's egg and bacon. Egg sausage and bacon. Egg and Spam. Egg bacon and Spam. Egg bacon sausage and Spam. Spam bacon sausage and Spam. Spam egg Spam Spam bacon and Spam. Spam sausage Spam Spam Spam bacon Spam tomato and Spam. Spam Spam Spam egg and Spam. Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam baked beans Spam Spam and Spam.
Or lobster (unintelligible) with a (unintelligible) sauce served in a purple (unintelligible) with (unintelligible) garnished with (unintelligible) brandy and fried egg on top and Spam.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Have you got anything without Spam?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Well, the Spam egg sausage and Spam, that's not got much Spam in it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I don't want any Spam.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Why can't have egg bacon Spam sausage?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: That's got Spam in it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Hasn't got as much Spam in it as Spam egg sausage and Spam, has it?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Would you give me egg bacon Spam and sausage without the Spam then?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Yech!
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What do you mean, yech? I don't like Spam.
GROSS: Carolyn Wyman, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm not going to assume that all of our listeners have actually had the pleasure of eating Spam. So, why don't you describe what it is and what it tastes like.
CAROLYN WYMAN, AUTHOR, "SPAM, A BIOGRAPHY: THE AMAZING TRUE STORY OF AMERICA'S MEAT": Well, it's a canned meat product. It tastes very kind of salty, porky, mushy, fatty, delicious to me. It's not made from anything as scary as people think. A lot of people think, you know, there's like pig noses and, you know, brains in there and stuff.
And actually, all it is, is pork shoulder with a little bit of ham and some salt and sugar. And the name, you know, Spam comes from spiced ham. Although, you look at while there's sugar and there's salt, and that doesn't seem like really spicy to us. But it is a Midwestern product.
GROSS: Spam's glory days were during World War II. How did Spam become part of the rations for many American soldiers?
WYMAN: Well, it was one of the first things that the government bought to feed soldiers. It was one of only 10 meat products bought initially as opposed to one of 60 later. So, they bought a whole bunch, like 150 million pounds for the Army alone.
It was because it was affordable and it was shelf stable and it was filling and was considered nutritious. Because, you know, it supply energy, which people need when they're out during physical work. The problem was of course that they had too much of it, really.
And because of, like, oversupply and problems with distribution some guys ended up eating it one, two, three times a day. And, you know, you couldn't like man a -- be a chef in the military at the time without having a real arsenal of great, you know, Spam recipes.
GROSS: Your father was a World War II veteran. Did he eat a lot of Spam?
WYMAN: Yeah, he did. And at least, you know, he -- a lot of guys, I guess, you know, I heard stories about families where after they ate it in the war they hated it so much. Like there was one guy that told me when his parents were having a fight his mother always served Spam because, you know, to get back at his father.
But in my case, I mean, and in probably the majority of the cases, it became a taste that the soldiers couldn't shake. And Spam sells actually went up after the war.
GROSS: Did your mother cook with Spam after the war?
WYMAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, her -- our favorite recipe -- our family recipe for Spam I put in the book. It's Spam, baked beans and pineapple casserole. And it's delicious. I mean, the three things just go together really well.
It requires no cooking ability beyond, you know, the ability to open a can. And, you know, it's part of my childhood. It's a real kind of nostalgic trip. I continue to make it although, you know, now there's only two people in my family. And my husband won't eat Spam, so I have to make it and then sort of split it up in little dishes and freeze it. I sort of make my own TV dinners out of it.
GROSS: You'll excuse me for saying it, Spam, baked beans and pineapple really sounds horrible.
WYMAN: Really, I mean, you got the haminess and kind of the saltiness of the ham, and then you've got the baked beans which provide kind of a meaty ballast. And then the pineapple is sweet, and it's just a perfect combination of, you know, flavors and textures as far as I'm concerned.
GROSS: Well, maybe it's helped by the freezing.
How was Spam invented, and this is a food that was invented?
WYMAN: Yeah, for sure. I mean, at the time when Spam was invented, you know, most meat was sold fresh or cured. It was not sold for the most part in supermarkets. It was still sold by butchers. And, you know, so the idea of putting -- selling a canned meat product that would be shelf stable was kind of bizarre.
And Jay Hormel, who was the son of the founder of the Hormel Meat Company, basically solved the problem of there was all this pork shoulder hanging around. I mean, they were making lots of pork and ham products, but pork shoulder is a very bony thing and it's hard to -- it wasn't making them any money at all. They were practically giving it away.
And they needed some way in which to make this meat more valuable. And so he, you know, cut it off the bone, mixed up with some spices, put it in a can, you know, gave it a name and just marketed the heck out of it.
GROSS: Does Spam still sell well?
WYMAN: Yeah, it does. I mean, you know, it doesn't sell as well as it did, you know, postwar in the '40s and '50s. But, I mean, they sell 90 million cans of it a year. And it's particularly popular in the South, families, people with kids and, you know, older people.
GROSS: What are some of the oddest Spam recipes you came cross in putting together your book?
WYMAN: Well, there is a Spam bread that's sort of similar to like a banana bread. It has apples and a lot of spices in it. And you can really hardly taste the Spam in it when you eat it. It's more -- it sort of functions more like shortening. But, you know, it kind of wows them if you tell them that it's a Spam bread.
There's also a number of many Spam cheesecakes out there, although they're savory style. There's been -- see, Hormel since around '92 -- '91 they've sponsored cooking contests at the -- like about 70 state fairs across America. And that has generated a lot of recipes, some of which are fairly weird.
Like, you know, Spam ice cream. One of the recipes though isn't weird but is interesting -- I mean, one of the more popular -- I was talking to a registered dietitian about, you know, what recipes people most request.
And one of the most requested recipes is called "Spam French Fry Casserole." And it's made with Spam, frozen french fries, corn flakes and cream of chicken soup.
WYMAN: And to me it's like kind of the whole processed food thing in one. But this is a current thing. This is a recipe that people want most now.
GROSS: "Wow," is about all I can say. It takes my breath away.
WYMAN: Well, I mean, you know, I think a lot of people are under the impression probably because if you read magazines -- food magazines -- or you read newspaper food sections, I think you think people are eating, you know, almond encrusted swordfish and arugula (ph), you know, sun-dried tomatoes.
And really, you know, to me most food writing is more like fashion writing. It's very interesting, but it's not something you would actually do in your own home. And really, I think, you know, most people despite what you read, I mean, news and writers for the most part, they're writing about unusual things. And most people are still eating, you know, Spam and cheese wiz and, you know, Kraft macaroni and cheese and all this great stuff.
GROSS: My guest is Carolyn Wyman, author of "Spam, A Biography." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Carolyn Wyman, author of "Spam, A History." She also co-writes the syndicated newspaper column " Supermarket Sampler."
I'd like you to describe the kind of food that you write about in your newspaper column, "Supermarket Sampler."
WYMAN: Well, the column reviews new products in the supermarket. So, you know, new processed foods in the supermarket. And I do it with a registered dietitian, so we sort of have a dialog format.
You know, so it would be anything like the new, you know, if Cool Whip comes out with chocolate cool whip we'll write about that, because that's important, you know.
Here's like an icon and we would talk about -- for instance, Stouffer's. There's a whole new category of meal starters right now, and Stouffers just came out with something called "skillet sensations" -- "Stouffer's Skillet Sensations." And what it is basically is a bagged TV dinner -- two servings.
And you make it in a skillet and then serve it -- and to me, of course, what it is to me is for people who are ashamed of eating TV dinners.
Because, really, I mean, it's much easier to just pop a TV dinner in that's got its own little tray, you don't have to wash anything. And with this product you have to dirty up a pan and so -- but, you know, what? That stems from is there is a lot of, and always has been since convenience foods came out, there's been a lot of guilt about -- among people who feel like they should be making home cooked meals.
And so, all through the history of processed foods they don't do as much as they can. I mean, like in this case, you know, they can just put it in trays and make it a lot easier.
But they feel like, oh, people will feel better if they're actually dirtying a pan. They'll feel like they're cooking being nurturing to their family. And in the same way, like, with the cake mixes is a classic example. I mean, when cake mixes were first invented they could -- they could the dried egg in there and the dried milk. I mean, they didn't need people to add egg and oil.
But they found when they did studies that people felt like they weren't really cooking, you know, if they didn't add those things.
GROSS: What do your readers most want to know about? Do they ask you questions about specific foods? You know, has there been any one food lately that everybody's asking about?
WYMAN: Well, readers who write tend to write in about their own personal nutritional concerns, often. Or, I mean, there are certain products that you can tell are going to be big hits because people will talk to me a lot about them.
Like LifeSaver's has these cream savers right now, which are basically, you know, like a creamy hard candy. And, you know, so they have a lot less fat than like if you actually had a candy bar with, you know, milk in it. But it's pretty much a lot more indulgent than a regular LifeSaver. And people are going crazy over this.
I mean, it's sort in away though it's like people went crazy over Snack Wells when they first came out with those little deviled food things because they're supposed to be low in fat. And it's so incredibly trendy because now they've actually had to add back a lot of fat into the Snack Wells line because people weren't buying it.
I mean, I just went to the big supermarket industry convention in May and there was not one new fat free product in the place. And probably, you know, three or four years ago it was probably two-thirds to three-quarters of the new products were fat free.
So, I mean, you know, we're kind of fickle. You know, we're -- in fact, the trend right now is back to fat basically. I mean, one of the products -- new products that I'm most excited about is Sara Lee has some new individual, you know, slices of cheesecake with lots of, you know, junk on them like, you know, chocolate and nuts and everything.
And they've also got something they call "cheesecake bites" and they're frozen and dipped in chocolate. I mean, for years now Sara Lee, all they've come out with is like fat-free, lighter products, you know. And now they're finally waking up that this is what they should be doing.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
WYMAN: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Carolyn Wyman is the author of "Spam, A Biography." She co-writes the syndicated newspaper column, "Supermarket Sampler."
I'm Terry Gross.
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Carolyn Wyman
High: Carolyn Wyman is author of "Spam, A Biography: The Amazing True Story of America's "Miracle Meat." She also wrote "I'm a Spam Fan" and "The Kitchen Sink Cookbook." Her syndicated weekly column, "Supermarket Sampler," presents reviews of new food products in more than 100 newspapers around the country. She is a staff writer at the "New Haven Register" in Connecticut.
Spec: Food; Lifestyle; Culture; Carolyn Wyman
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Spam I Am
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.