SPAM’s Complicated Legacy – The Atlantic

For many Filipino Americans, SPAM isn’t only a beloved ingredient in a well-liked breakfast dish: It is a marker of Filipino id. But after months of reporting on the canned meat and its cultural that means, Gabrielle Berbey, an affiliate producer for The Experiment podcast, got here to appreciate that SPAM’s historical past was much more complicated than she’d initially thought. “SPAM, in my family, had this almost lore-like quality about it,” Berbey says. Yet for others, over time, SPAM got here to characterize the Philippines’ dependence on fatty, salty canned meals imported from abroad. “It turns out that a lot of people are wrestling with SPAM’s legacy.”

Berbey just lately joined Julia Longoria, the host of The Experiment, for a dialog on Twitter Spaces to debate the podcast’s three-part miniseries, SPAM: How the American Dream Got Canned. They have been joined by Dave Jorgenson—a video producer, editor, and author maybe finest referred to as “the Washington Post TikTok Guy”—who shared his personal lifelong affinity for SPAM, and insights on its cultural resonance within the United States. This dialog has been condensed and edited for size and readability.

Julia Longoria: Gabrielle, we simply spent—my gosh, how lengthy has it been? Six months, at the very least—reporting on a fairly meaty subject: SPAM, the canned meat, as a kind of image of the American dream. It conjures plenty of robust feelings for lots of various folks. But our story actually begins with you and your loved ones within the Philippines. How do you even start to clarify how SPAM turned this big, larger-than-life factor in your and your loved ones’s life?

Gabrielle Berbey: I grew up within the Bay Area, round plenty of Filipino household and associates, and all of us love SPAM. We eat it for breakfast—SPAM, rice, and eggs is a traditional Filipino breakfast. We have SPAM in plenty of our dishes. One factor that made me interested in SPAM, in contrast to another traditional Filipino dishes, is that SPAM, in my household, had this nearly lore-like high quality about it that needed to do with American historical past. The story of SPAM in my household began throughout World War II, when my grandfather was a younger boy within the Philippines, and he was hiding from the Japanese for a big a part of his childhood. He remembers American GIs coming in and driving by means of the roads of provinces and throwing cans of SPAM at him, and all the children chasing after the American vehicles being like, Oh my God, the Americans are right here. They’re going to save lots of us from the Japanese military, they usually’re giving us SPAM. He would inform this story to my mother when she was little. And then they’d inform that story to me. So the primary line of questioning was: Why did SPAM go from the arms of the American guys to my grandfather to then changing into this factor that we think about a Filipino delicacy? That was simply the very small entryway into this subject that ended up changing into far bigger than I believe I ever imagined.

Longoria: I bear in mind, Gaby, after we first began this story and also you have been telling me about it, you have been like, “I don’t eat SPAM,” which was so intriguing to me. You’re embarking on this journey to determine why your loved ones loves this. But now you don’t eat it. How do you now really feel about SPAM and the significance of it inside your loved ones?

Berbey: A fast historical past lesson: Wherever American GIs landed throughout World War II across the Pacific—Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines—they left SPAM of their wake. SPAM took maintain in these locations and have become a ubiquitous a part of diets. And clearly, you can’t blame solely SPAM for this, however in these locations, there’s additionally a extremely excessive prevalence of coronary heart illness and diabetes. My grandfather died of diabetes problems. About one in 5 Filipinos are diabetic and prediabetic. You see related statistics everywhere in the Pacific. So I received older and began questioning extra concerning the position of this canned meat and what it represents about American imperialism.

I talked to meals historians about how meals can be utilized as a type of assimilation, but additionally management. It seems that lots of people are wrestling with SPAM’s legacy within the locations the place SPAM took maintain. So as I used to be making calls to meals historians and poets, I discovered a SPAM poet, Craig Santos Perez. I extremely suggest his poems. I even talked to a well being clinic in Hawaii that was educating Hawaii locals the way to make selfmade, more healthy SPAM. It is a part of this bigger food-sovereignty motion. So I nonetheless really feel fairly difficult about it. But that basically simply touches the tip of the iceberg as to what SPAM represents in American historical past and the place it exhibits up.

Longoria: SPAM is just like the Forrest Gump of American historical past, the place it simply appears to maintain popping up. It appears to characterize such various things. For some folks like your grandfather, SPAM is freedom, after which for others, it’s just like the image of meals dependence, the kind of darker, unintended penalties of American affect on islands just like the Philippines. It will get much more difficult after we inform the story of a strike in Episode 2. We go on an entire journey. I ponder, for you, Gabrielle, what was your favourite a part of reporting this out?

Berbey: I’ve to say the SPAM museum, in Austin, Minnesota. SPAM isn’t a Filipino meals; it’s an American meat created in the course of the Great Depression by Hormel. They have a SPAM museum there now, which form of seems like a Willy Wonka manufacturing facility. There are SPAM cans flying above your head and music and colourful lights. And the people who work there, they name themselves the SPAMbassadors.

Longoria: When we walked into this actually SPAM-shaped constructing—they attempt to make it seem like a SPAM can—we have been greeted by this one that tells us with a very straight face that she’s the SPAManager. For me, what was most intriguing was the second once I thought, You know, this isn’t only one episode. This goes to be one thing to essentially sink our enamel into. The of us on the SPAM museum and folk in Austin, Minnesota, who have been so pleasant and open with us, after we requested them concerning the strike that occurred within the ’80s, would simply 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 have been touching this actually painful spot on this city’s historical past, they usually didn’t need to discuss it. It’s wild how this thriller meat actually has touched so many lives, whether or not optimistic or unfavorable, for thus many individuals.

We are additionally joined by one other one that has a powerful 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 surprising locations. Can you describe a few of the movies that you just’ve made the place SPAM is featured?

Dave Jorgenson: I began a quarantine TikTok thread in March 2020, and I began incorporating my good friend Sam—who’s only a can of SPAM with the P Sharpied out. I all the time had an appreciation for SPAM, each sarcastically and genuinely, and so I’ve been incorporating Sam all through. I give him a hand at one level, like a bodily, tiny hand. He just lately received a second hand to a lot fanfare, at the very least for me. He has googly eyes as properly. He’s voiced by my colleague’s husband, who’s additionally named Sam, and he has a British accent. Sam might be in each 20 TikToks or so at this level.

Longoria: How did you come to like SPAM? Do you’ve got 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 within the Florida Keys. I often describe it to folks as “it’s like if you did Survivor for a week.” Every week we might take out a crew from a special a part of the nation to this island within the Keys. We had a certain quantity of meals that we might have, and we have been purported to encourage the younger Scouts, aged 14 to 17, to cook dinner their very own meals. One factor they by no means tousled was the SPAM. I inspired them to attend ’til the final day to cook dinner SPAM—when tenting, it’s the most effective meals. Because if you happen to like bacon, you in all probability like SPAM. You simply minimize it, then put it in a pan. Sometimes we might cook dinner it with mac and cheese. Sometimes we cooked with the powdered eggs. It was the distinction between being form of hungry and actually hungry, whether or not or not we’ve this could of SPAM for 2 days. So I got here to fairly love SPAM.

I don’t understand how many individuals are conscious of this, however earlier than our quarantine TikToks, we did a pumpkin-spice-SPAM TikTok in 2019.

Berbey: Did you strive it?

Jorgenson: I did. Raw, which isn’t perfect … however if you happen to cook dinner it up—you realize, slice it, then fry it—it’s superb.

Longoria: Do you’ve got any favourite SPAM recipes? What is an efficient option to cook dinner SPAM?

Jorgenson: I’m a fundamental SPAM eater. I simply desire it minimize actually skinny and fried. I do suppose SPAM sushi is scrumptious. I believe it could be known as one thing else, but it surely’s actually good. Any form of SPAM with rice is scrumptious.

Berbey: For me, it’s SPAM, rice, and egg, or SPAM fried rice. You form of want the rice to chop the saltiness of it. Otherwise, it’s a little overwhelming.

Jorgenson: Oh yeah, it’s price mentioning that my physician was like, “You probably should not eat any more SPAM.”

Longoria: The commercials for SPAM through the years are simply unbelievable. They had one the place a bit of lettuce was singing a love track to SPAM for spicing up its life. But then there was additionally a boy band, proper, Gaby?

Berbey: Yeah, so the corporate was mainly simply looking for methods to market SPAM to totally different cultural teams. In the Philippines, for instance, Filipinos, we love boy bands.

Longoria: I imply, who doesn’t?

Berbey: The firm created a boy band for Filipinos known as ALL4SPAM, which simply sings about SPAM.

Jorgenson: So I’ve a idea about all that. Are you aware of the Monopoly spin-off video games? There’s actually Socialism Monopoly. There’s all these actually particular variations they put out. I believe this was the identical actually sensible transfer, nearly a advertising and marketing ploy. I received that pumpkin spice spam. The day it got here out, it was offered out throughout the nation. I don’t suppose they have been ready for the quantity of people who have been going to purchase it.

Berbey: I’m curious, Dave, the group that you just grew up with, did they eat SPAM too? When I used to be rising up round Filipinos within the Bay, like plenty of Filipinos, they ate SPAM. But then lots of people at college that weren’t Filipino or Pacific Islander, they didn’t actually know what SPAM was, or they thought it was bizarre that we have been consuming it.

Jorgenson: It’s an excellent query, as a result of the reply is just about nearly totally no. But yeah, we didn’t actually have it rising up. It’s simply one thing you’d see within the retailer. So actually, the obsession did start on this camp within the Florida Keys. And since then, I’ve all the time been like, “We’re going camping; let’s get a can of SPAM.” And I’m all the time met with “Okay?”

Berbey: I used to be speaking to a reporter at Minnesota Public Radio, and he or she was saying that within the Midwest, it was very a lot a working-class meals. Her dad and mom have been coal miners. So she was saying that they ate SPAM out of necessity, as a result of it was this low-cost meat there.

SPAM is definitely actually costly within the Philippines. That’s why Filipino members of the family within the United States will ship SPAM. Because it’s cheaper. It is taken into account a delicacy. It’s a deal with. It’s like, Oh, okay, we did one thing good. We get SPAM. It’s undoubtedly not thought-about a simple, low-cost type of protein. In locations like Hawaii and Guam, folks will peddle SPAM for decrease costs.

Jorgenson: So I’m within the unsuitable place.

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