Then it was junk food; now it's junk anything
Saturday, October 13, 2007
By Gene Jannuzi, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
How can we bridge that three-generation gap between World War II veterans and today's teenagers? Easily. With just one word: SPAM. OK, two words then: SPAM and spam.
The veterans remember SPAM vividly, anywhere on a scale from fondness on down. Teenagers wallow in spam, more or less willingly.
SPAM, of course, is Hormel Luncheon Meat. It was born in 1937, and WWII veterans were in on the cradling.
Spam, which is of much more recent vintage, is the scourge of the Internet, unsolicited and unwanted junk e-mail. It is the illegitimate grand-stepchild of the first monster computers spawned in the mid-20th century.
Let me now with an anecdote engineer a quasi shotgun marriage between upper-case SPAM and lower-case spam.
The other day a teenager of my acquaintance said, laughing, that he often wondered why the Hormel company ever would name its SPAM Luncheon Meat after something as gross and yukky as e-mail spam. I assured him it was the other way around, and that Hormel this year is celebrating its 70th SPAM anniversary.
If veterans of WWII should notice that anniversary, no doubt it will be with a somewhat speckled whimsicality. Because it came in a can and required no refrigeration, SPAM became a staple in the diet of the armed forces of the United States and other countries during World War II. In a story that may be apocryphal, Nikita Khrushchev, the late prime minister of Soviet Russia, is said to have declared, in a fit of hyperbole, perhaps while banging his shoe on the desk, "SPAM won the war."
SPAM also became ubiquitous on the home front during the war. It was not rationed, as was beef. You had to have "points" then to get your quota of beef, butter, bacon, sugar, other foods and gasoline
Aboard my ship, in my years at sea during the war, SPAM was a regular at chow. You knew ahead of time what you'd find in the mess by the sailors' stem-to-stern mutterings that sounded like an oath: "SPAM again." I ate it while dreaming of my mother's cooking back home.
Don Maze, of Beaver, who was Ship's Cook on LST 859 during the war, cooked for a crew of 100. He says:
"I could not begin to total the tons of SPAM I ordered aboard. I cooked and served SPAM in every imaginable form. And I just turned a deaf ear on the comments of the crew on the chow line. I was threatened, but managed not to get thrown overboard."
We all made do with the food available to us. We had to, or starve. Certainly SPAM, where a kitchen was available, was more palatable than the C-Rations and K-Rations that the troops carried in their packs out in the field in combat conditions.
And just as certainly, SPAM was a handy nutrition source for cooks to feed soldiers, sailors and fliers in the long days and months of toil and battle before victory in Europe and the Pacific in 1945. I can't speak about MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), today's version of the field ration. Never tried them.
Now it's time to reveal how SPAM became spam. Wikipedia tells us. Blame it on a skit by Monty Python's Flying Circus about 20 years ago.
The skit is set in a cafe where every item on the menu includes SPAM Luncheon Meat. The server calls out the SPAM-packed items, while patrons sing a song that goes, "SPAM SPAM SPAM, wonderful SPAM," to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." Soon after that skit SPAM morphed into spam, which became the name of unwanted e-mail.
Today spam can be used to describe almost anything unwanted, bothersome or overwhelming. Used either as a noun or as a verb, spam adds new pages to the dictionary. We are being spammed by graffiti, cell-phone calls, french fries, T-shirts, Viagra ads, flip-flop shoes, painted toenails, tattoos, presidential candidates -- you name it.
Recently my computer became so jammed with spam that, with continual pop-ups and junk mail, it was so sluggish it had to be overhauled.
Back to SPAM. In its 70th year, Hormel has come up with SPAM singles. They are three-ounce servings in foil packages.
A new book, "The Book of SPAM," reviewed in this newspaper by Bob Batz Jr., tells the SPAM story, and pokes a bit of fun. It has a section titled "Recipes That Time Forgot. For a Reason." Like "SPAM 'n' Limes," and "SPAM 'n' Yam Fiesta Loaf."
The other day, after 60 years of willing separation from SPAM, I went to Giant Eagle looking for it. I bought a 12-ounce can of SPAM Classic and another of SPAM Lite, which is labeled as having 50 per cent less sodium than Classic.
And I tried them. SPAM 'n' eggs. Not bad at all. The word of a sailor.
Gene Jannuzi is a retired CEO of the former Moltrup Steel in Beaver Falls and a former Post-Gazette reporter. He lives in Beaver Falls (firstname.lastname@example.org).