The packaged pork product that is Spam has never been more popular.
In a web interview in late March, Jim Snee, CEO of Austin, Minn.-based Hormel, which introduced Spam to the world in 1937, said that the supermarket staple has enjoyed five consecutive years of record sales. Another is forecast for 2020.
"I think that the significant uptick that we're seeing through this crisis puts us well on our way," he said. "It's over an 80-year-old brand, and it's more relevant today than it's ever been."
Yes, Spam, which Hormel produces in Austin as well as in plants in Iowa and Nebraska, is flying off the shelves, with good reason: It's canned comfort food, a porky, briny balm during a time of anxiety.
"There's such a tradition to this brand and a love for this brand," said Brian Lillis, a senior Hormel brand manager. "It's a brand that gets passed from generation to generation, but we're also excited that we're getting more people to try it."
It's also affordable. A 12-oz. container of the precooked luncheon meat runs about $3.75.
Granted, Spam isn't exactly health food, with high levels of sodium — a necessary preservative for a shelf-stable product — and saturated fat.
Still, the formula is simple, featuring a handful of ingredients: ground pork shoulder mixed with ground ham, plus water, sugar, potato starch, salt and sodium nitrate.
Spam is truly Minnesota's global ambassador. Consumers grew accustomed to it during World War II, when 100 million cans of Spam were shipped worldwide.
It's currently available in 44 countries, and Hormel measures sales by the billions of units. By 2012, the company had sold more than 8 billion cans of Spam. Fun fact: If all those cans were stacked end to end, they would circle the Earth's circumference 19 times.
There are now 16 varieties of Spam, from "lite" and lower-sodium versions to novelties flavored with jalapeño, teriyaki and garlic. Last fall, Hormel even went the limited-edition route and took Spam into the Starbucks-generated land of pumpkin spice.
"We've been creating different forms of Spam products for a number of decades," said Lillis. "It's fun watching the favorites that resonate well with our consumers."
Over the years, Spam has also enjoyed popular culture fame.
The most famous incidence comes courtesy of a 1970 sketch on the British comedy series "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (it's also the root of the use of the word "spam" as unwanted e-mail), which eventually culminated in the troupe's 2005 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, "Spamalot."
Hormel also operates a Spam museum (aka, the "Guggenham") in Austin, which is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For those seeking to tiptoe beyond Spamburgers or Spam and eggs, Hormel's website offers dozens of Spam-related recipes.
The most popular is Spam fried rice, followed by various takes on musubi, the classic Hawaiian delicacy that involves grilled Spam, rice and nori. Spam is big business in Hawaii, where the state's residents consume 7 million cans of the pink stuff every year.
When it comes to the Spam-uninitiated — let's face it, for some it's an acquired taste — here's a tip: Start small. Use it in a recipe that treats Spam as a supporting player rather than placing it in a starring role.
Think of it this way: if a recipe calls for ham, then it might be successful with Spam. Scalloped potatoes. Strata. Pizza. And definitely fried rice.
Now, crack open that can and get cooking.
Spam Fried Rice
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Fried rice can accommodate just about any vegetable in the refrigerator (baby bok choy, broccoli, asparagus, a thawed bag of frozen mixed vegetables) and can be dressed with countless condiments, from kimchi to hoisin sauce to fish sauce. Fried rice is an ideal use of leftover cooked rice, including brown rice. Shaoxing wine is a Chinese fermented rice wine, and can be substituted with dry white wine, pale dry sherry or water. Adapted from the New York Times.
• 3 tbsp. neutral oil, like canola or grapeseed, divided
• 1 (12-oz.) can Spam, diced
• 1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
• 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, cored and roughly chopped
•2 carrots, peeled and finely minced
• 1 c. frozen peas, thawed
• 1 tbsp. minced garlic, or to taste
• 1 tbsp. freshly minced ginger
• 3 to 4 c. cooked rice, cooled
• 2 eggs, lightly beaten
• 1/4 c. Shaoxing wine (see Note)
• 2 tbsp. soy sauce
• 1 tbsp. sesame oil
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• 1/2 c. minced fresh cilantro or green onions
In a large skillet or wok over high heat, warm 1 tablespoon oil. When oil begins to shimmer, add Spam, onion, pepper and carrots and cook, stirring, occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, 5 to 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove Spam and vegetables to a bowl.
Drain peas, if necessary, and add them to the skillet. Cook, shaking pan, until peas are hot, about a minute. With a slotted spoon, remove peas to the bowl.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the skillet, followed by the garlic and ginger. When the mixture is fragrant, about 15 seconds later, add the rice, breaking up clumps with a spoon as you go along and tossing it with oil. When the rice is well-coated, make a well in the center and pour the beaten eggs into it. Scramble the eggs, season with salt and pepper, then stir cooked eggs into the rice.
Return Spam and vegetables to the skillet and stir to integrate. Add wine or water and cook, stirring, for approximately 1 minute. Add soy sauce and sesame oil, then taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Turn off heat, stir in the cilantro (or green onions) and serve.
Spam Hawaiian Pizza
Makes 1 pizza.
Note: From Hormel.
• 1 (10-oz.) prepared unbaked pizza crust
• 6 oz. shredded provolone cheese
• 1 (12-oz.) can Spam, cut into thin squares
• 1 (16-oz.) can chunked pineapple, drained
• 1/2 c. red onion, thinly sliced
• 1/2 c. chopped green pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place rolled pizza dough on a 14-inch pizza pan or large baking sheet. Top dough with cheese, then arrange Spam, pineapple, red onion and green pepper over cheese. Bake until crust is a deep golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven, slice and serve hot.
Potatoes au Gratin With Spam
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: Adapted from "Joy of Cooking."
• Butter for serving dish, plus extra for topping
• 2 c. half-and-half or heavy cream
• 1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves or 1 tsp. freshly minced rosemary or sage
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
• 2 1/2 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/8-in. slices
• 1 c. grated Swiss, Gruyère, sharp Cheddar or Parmesan cheese (about 4 oz.)
• 1 thinly sliced medium onion
• 4 oz. diced Spam
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 12-inch gratin pan or a shallow 3-quart baking dish.
In a medium bowl, whisk together half-and-half (or heavy cream), thyme (or rosemary or sage), garlic, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Place a layer of potatoes in the prepared dish, pour one-quarter of the cream mixture over them, and sprinkle with one-quarter of the cheese. Repeat this layering a second time, then sprinkle onion and Spam over second layer. Repeat potato/half-and-half/cheese layering two more times, ending with cheese. Dot the top with more butter and bake until the top is golden and potatoes are tender, 45 to 60 minutes.
Denver-style Slow Cooker Strata
Serves 8 to 10.
Note: If there is no stale bread on hand, dry out fresh bread by spreading bread cubes in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and baking for about 40 minutes in a 225-degree oven, stirring the bread occasionally. From "The Complete Slow Cooker," by America's Test Kitchen.
• Vegetable oil spray for slow cooker
• 2 red or green bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/2-in. pieces
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 2 tsp. minced freshly thyme or 1 tsp. dried
• 8 oz. Spam, cut into 1/4-inch dice
• 14 oz. baguette or Italian bread, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 12 c.), staled overnight
• 1 1/2 c. grated Monterey Jack cheese (about 6 oz.)
• 2 1/2 c. half-and-half
• 9 eggs
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Line an oval-shaped slow cooker with an aluminum foil collar, then press 2 large sheets of foil into slow cooker perpendicular to one another, with extra foil hanging over edges. Lightly coat prepared slow cooker with vegetable oil spray.
In a microwave-safe bowl, combine bell peppers, onion, oil, garlic and thyme, and cook (stirring occasionally) until vegetables are softened, about 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in Spam.
Spread half the stale bread cubes into prepared slow cooker, then sprinkle with half of Spam mixture and 1/2 cup Monterey Jack cheese. Repeat layering with remaining stale bread, remaining Spam mixture and remaining 1 cup Monterey Jack cheese.
In a large bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, eggs, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, then pour mixture evenly over bread. Press gently on bread to submerge.
Cover and cook on low until center of strata is set, 3 to 4 hours. Turn off slow cooker and let strata sit, covered, for 20 minutes. Serve directly out of slow cooker, or lift strata out of slow cooker using aluminum foil liners and transfer strata to a serving dish.