SPAM’s Complicated Legacy – The Atlantic
For many Filipino Americans, SPAM isn’t just a beloved ingredient in a popular breakfast dish: It is a marker of Filipino identity. But after months of reporting on the canned meat and its cultural meaning, Gabrielle Berbey, an associate producer for The Experiment podcast, came to realize that SPAM’s history was far more complex than she’d originally thought. “SPAM, in my family, had this almost lore-like quality about it,” Berbey says. Yet for others, over time, SPAM came to represent the Philippines’ dependence on fatty, salty canned foods imported from overseas. “It turns out that a lot of people are wrestling with SPAM’s legacy.”
Berbey recently joined Julia Longoria, the host of The Experiment, for a conversation on Twitter Spaces to discuss the podcast’s three-part miniseries, SPAM: How the American Dream Got Canned. They were joined by Dave Jorgenson—a video producer, editor, and writer perhaps best known as “the Washington Post TikTok Guy”—who shared his own lifelong affinity for SPAM, and insights on its cultural resonance in the United States. This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Julia Longoria: Gabrielle, we just spent—my gosh, how long has it been? Six months, at least—reporting on a pretty meaty topic: SPAM, the canned meat, as a sort of symbol of the American dream. It conjures a lot of strong emotions for a lot of different people. But our story really starts with you and your family in the Philippines. How do you even begin to explain how SPAM became this huge, larger-than-life thing in your and your family’s life?
Gabrielle Berbey: I grew up in the Bay Area, around a lot of Filipino family and friends, and we all love SPAM. We eat it for breakfast—SPAM, rice, and eggs is a classic Filipino breakfast. We have SPAM in a lot of our dishes. One thing that made me curious about SPAM, unlike some other classic Filipino dishes, is that SPAM, in my family, had this almost lore-like quality about it that had to do with American history. The story of SPAM in my family started during World War II, when my grandfather was a young boy in the Philippines, and he was hiding from the Japanese for a large part of his childhood. He remembers American GIs coming in and driving through the roads of provinces and throwing cans of SPAM at him, and all the kids chasing after the American trucks being like, Oh my God, the Americans are here. They’re going to save us from the Japanese army, and they’re giving us SPAM. He would tell this story to my mom when she was little. And then they would tell that story to me. So the first line of questioning was: Why did SPAM go from the hands of the American guys to my grandfather to then becoming this thing that we consider a Filipino delicacy? That was just the very small entryway into this topic that ended up becoming far larger than I think I ever imagined.
Longoria: I remember, Gaby, when we first started this story and you were telling me about it, you were like, “I don’t eat SPAM,” which was so intriguing to me. You’re embarking on this journey to figure out why your family loves this. But now you don’t eat it. How do you now feel about SPAM and the importance of it within your family?
Berbey: A quick history lesson: Wherever American GIs landed during World War II around the Pacific—Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines—they left SPAM in their wake. SPAM took hold in those places and became a ubiquitous part of diets. And obviously, you cannot blame only SPAM for this, but in those places, there’s also a really high prevalence of heart disease and diabetes. My grandfather died of diabetes complications. About one in five Filipinos are diabetic and prediabetic. You see similar statistics all over the Pacific. So I got older and started questioning more about the role of this canned meat and what it represents about American imperialism.
I talked to food historians about how food can be used as a form of assimilation, but also control. It turns out that a lot of people are wrestling with SPAM’s legacy in the places where SPAM took hold. So as I was making calls to food historians and poets, I found a SPAM poet, Craig Santos Perez. I highly recommend his poems. I even talked to a health clinic in Hawaii that was teaching Hawaii locals how to make homemade, healthier SPAM. It is part of this larger food-sovereignty movement. So I still feel pretty complicated about it. But that really just touches the tip of the iceberg as to what SPAM represents in American history and where it shows up.
Longoria: SPAM is like the Forrest Gump of American history, where it just seems to keep popping up. It seems to represent such different things. For some people like your grandfather, SPAM is freedom, and then for others, it’s like the symbol of food dependence, the sort of darker, unintended consequences of American influence on islands like the Philippines. It gets even more complicated when we tell the story of a strike in Episode 2. We go on a whole journey. I wonder, for you, Gabrielle, what was your favorite part of reporting this out?
Berbey: I have to say the SPAM museum, in Austin, Minnesota. SPAM is not a Filipino food; it’s an American meat created during the Great Depression by Hormel. They have a SPAM museum there now, which kind of looks like a Willy Wonka factory. There are SPAM cans flying above your head and music and colorful lights. And the people that work there, they call themselves the SPAMbassadors.
Longoria: When we walked into this literally SPAM-shaped building—they try to make it look like a SPAM can—we were greeted by this person who tells us with a completely straight face that she’s the SPAManager. For me, what was most intriguing was the moment when I thought, You know, this isn’t just one episode. This is going to be something to really sink our teeth into. The folks at the SPAM museum and folks in Austin, Minnesota, who were so friendly and open with us, when we asked them about the strike that happened in the ’80s, would just shut down. [Editor’s note: The strike led to SPAM boycotts across the nation and lasted for two years, at times erupting in violence.] It was clear that we were touching this really painful spot in this town’s history, and they didn’t want to talk about it. It’s wild how this mystery meat really has touched so many lives, whether positive or negative, for so many people.
We are also joined by another person who has a strong love of SPAM, Dave Jorgenson, of The Washington Post. Dave, welcome. One of the pleasures of The Washington Post’s TikTok account is watching how SPAM pops up in these unexpected places. Can you describe some of the videos that you’ve made where SPAM is featured?
Dave Jorgenson: I started a quarantine TikTok thread in March 2020, and I started incorporating my friend Sam—who is just a can of SPAM with the P Sharpied out. I always had an appreciation for SPAM, both ironically and genuinely, and so I’ve been incorporating Sam throughout. I give him a hand at one point, like a physical, tiny hand. He recently got a second hand to much fanfare, at least for me. He has googly eyes as well. He’s voiced by my colleague’s husband, who’s also named Sam, and he has a British accent. Sam is probably in every 20 TikToks or so at this point.
Longoria: How did you come to love SPAM? Do you have a SPAMorigin?
Jorgenson: I do have a SPAMorigin story! The first time I ate SPAM was at a Boy Scout camp I used to work at. It was in the Florida Keys. I usually describe it to people as “it’s like if you did Survivor for a week.” Every week we would take out a crew from a different part of the country to this island in the Keys. We had a certain amount of food that we could have, and we were supposed to encourage the young Scouts, aged 14 to 17, to cook their own food. One thing they never messed up was the SPAM. I encouraged them to wait ’til the last day to cook SPAM—when camping, it’s the best food. Because if you like bacon, you probably like SPAM. You just cut it, then put it in a pan. Sometimes we would cook it with mac and cheese. Sometimes we cooked with the powdered eggs. It was the difference between being kind of hungry and really hungry, whether or not we have this can of SPAM for two days. So I came to quite love SPAM.
I don’t know how many people are aware of this, but before our quarantine TikToks, we did a pumpkin-spice-SPAM TikTok in 2019.
Berbey: Did you try it?
Jorgenson: I did. Raw, which is not ideal … but if you cook it up—you know, slice it, then fry it—it’s fine.
Longoria: Do you have any favorite SPAM recipes? What is a good way to cook SPAM?
Jorgenson: I’m a basic SPAM eater. I just prefer it cut really thin and fried. I do think SPAM sushi is delicious. I think it might be called something else, but it’s really good. Any kind of SPAM with rice is delicious.
Berbey: For me, it’s SPAM, rice, and egg, or SPAM fried rice. You kind of need the rice to cut the saltiness of it. Otherwise, it is a little overwhelming.
Jorgenson: Oh yeah, it’s worth mentioning that my doctor was like, “You probably should not eat any more SPAM.”
Longoria: The commercials for SPAM over the years are just incredible. They had one where a piece of lettuce was singing a love song to SPAM for spicing up its life. But then there was also a boy band, right, Gaby?
Berbey: Yeah, so the company was basically just trying to find ways to market SPAM to different cultural groups. In the Philippines, for example, Filipinos, we love boy bands.
Longoria: I mean, who doesn’t?
Berbey: The company created a boy band for Filipinos called ALL4SPAM, which just sings about SPAM.
Jorgenson: So I have a theory about all that. Are you familiar with the Monopoly spin-off games? There’s literally Socialism Monopoly. There’s all these really specific versions they put out. I think this was the same really smart move, almost a marketing ploy. I got that pumpkin spice spam. The day it came out, it was sold out across the country. I don’t think they were prepared for the amount of people that were going to buy it.
Berbey: I’m curious, Dave, the group that you grew up with, did they eat SPAM too? When I was growing up around Filipinos in the Bay, like a lot of Filipinos, they ate SPAM. But then a lot of people at school that weren’t Filipino or Pacific Islander, they didn’t really know what SPAM was, or they thought it was weird that we were eating it.
Jorgenson: It’s a great question, because the answer is pretty much almost entirely no. But yeah, we didn’t really have it growing up. It’s just something you would see in the store. So really, the obsession did begin in this camp in the Florida Keys. And since then, I’ve always been like, “We’re going camping; let’s get a can of SPAM.” And I’m always met with “Okay?”
Berbey: I was talking to a reporter at Minnesota Public Radio, and she was saying that in the Midwest, it was very much a working-class food. Her parents were coal miners. So she was saying that they ate SPAM out of necessity, because it was this cheap meat there.
SPAM is actually really expensive in the Philippines. That’s why Filipino family members in the United States will send SPAM. Because it’s cheaper. It is considered a delicacy. It’s a treat. It’s like, Oh, okay, we did something good. We get SPAM. It’s definitely not considered an easy, cheap form of protein. In places like Hawaii and Guam, people will peddle SPAM for lower prices.
Jorgenson: So I’m in the wrong place.