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Zionsville Times Sentinel

There are two things I will never eat again as long as I live: wax beans and SPAM. I ate my lifetime quota of both back in the Dark Ages of My Youth.

We always had a big vegetable garden back then. Everybody did, and Mom canned everything. During both the crippling Depression and the shortages of the war that followed, it was the only way to provide enough food for your family.

In our garden the most prolific crop was wax beans. They grew and produced like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Every year Mom put up at least 40 quarts of the things. By the end of winter we were gagging at just about every meal.

SPAM showed up on our table during the early years of the war and quickly became a staple in our diet. It was called “the miracle meat” because it needed no refrigeration. The stuff was created by Hormel, Inc., a meat-packing plant located on the dreary snow-blown plains of Austin, Minn.

Hormel had created America’s first canned meat back in 1926, a product called Hormel-Flavor Sealed Ham. A good idea, but one that still had to be refrigerated and was prone to spoil.

In 1937, the company introduced a canned meat that could sit on the shelf for months without refrigeration and never spoil. They called it Hormel Spiced Ham. Later, they sponsored a contest for a catchy name for the stuff. The winning entry was SPAM, a contraction of Spiced Ham.

SPAM couldn’t have come along at a better time. When the war broke out, the military ordered field rations built around single-serving cans of SPAM. Tons of the product were shipped overseas. Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev declared that SPAM was responsible for the survival of the Russian Army during World War II.

I guess there was something patriotic about eating SPAM, but that is not why we ate it. We had SPAM at least four times a week because it was inexpensive and it wasn’t rationed. During the war every family was issued ration books filled with different colored coupons. Blue points were for canned goods and vegetables, green points were for dry goods, I think, and red points were redeemable for fresh meat.

No one could survive on what they could get with their ration points alone. Victory Gardens made up the deficit in vegetables, and SPAM provided the extra meat.

SPAM is made from pork, which should be tasty. But by the time it’s processed and canned it takes on a flavor that defies description. They claimed it wouldn’t spoil, but my sister and I became convinced it tasted the way it did because it had already spoiled.

The flavor was so prominent that nothing you did to it could mask it. Mom baked it like a miniature ham, fried it in slices, diced it with vegetables, and once she even created an ill-fated bean soup with chopped SPAM. That was the only dish we threw out after a single taste.

In 1946, the last batch of Mom’s wax beans spoiled and we held a jubilant celebration in the back yard while dumping and burying some 30 quarts of them. Since then I don’t recall ever seeing a wax bean.

I would have thought SPAM would have suffered a similar fate. Yet, even after the war ended and fresh meats replenished our grocery stores, SPAM marched on. It was the subject of the first singing commercial on the radio in the late 1940s: “SPAM, SPAM, SPAM … the miracle meat in a can …”

SPAM sponsored the George Burns and Gracie Allen radio show, and in the 1950s Hormel sponsored a traveling entertainment troupe called the Hormel Girls. In the 1960s, the company introduced 7-ounce cans of the stuff and later came out with a smoke-flavored variety and finally a low-sodium SPAM.

And just last week Hormel announced a new spurt in SPAM sales. Why? Escalating food prices perhaps. SPAM is still cheap.

But it’s still SPAM.

Ward Degler is a Zionsville writer and artist. E-mail him at wdegler@att.net.

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