Brooke Gladstone: This is the On The Media midweek podcast. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, we're bringing you a story from our colleagues at The Experiment, a show produced by WNYC and The Atlantic. It's about SPAM: the meaty kind. During World War II, wherever American troops spread democracy, they left the tinned pork-mix in their wake; tossing cans of SPAM out of trucks to the hungry people they sought to liberate. That's how Experiment producer Gabrielle Berbey’s grandfather first came to know and love SPAM as a kid in the Philippines. Once a classic American product, 80 years later it's now a staple Filipino food, a beloved emblem of Filipino identity.
In this episode, the first of a three-part series, Gabrielle sets out to understand how SPAM made its way into the hearts of generations of Pacific Islanders and ends up opening a SPAM can of worms. Host of The Experiment, Julia Longoria, sets up the premise and returns later in the episode.
Julia Longoria: How did SPAM get to the Philippines?
Franklin Roosevelt: December 7th, 1941-
Gabrielle Berbey: The story starts on a horrific day in US history.
Franklin: -a date which will live in infamy.
Gabrielle: Hours after bombing Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops bombed Manila, which is the capital of the Philippines, where my family is from.
Announcer 1: Manila has just been bombed.
Announcer 2: It was a merciless attack upon a people who had been taught the American way of life and freedom.
Gabrielle: What happened next, when my grandfather was just about 10 years old, is a story he would tell over and over again throughout the course of his life. My mom and my lola remember it.
Lola: I remember him on the bed, telling the story to the kids, and they are all on the floor.
Mom: My dad told me that during World War II, he was a young boy and--
Gabrielle: After the Japanese troops invaded the Philippines, they began committing war crimes. They were killing Filipinos. They were raping women. That’s when my grandfather and his family had to flee their home to the mountains to hide from the Japanese, living in fear, always ready to run at a moment’s notice, trying to avoid the Japanese army. This went on for more than three years, but in 1945, American troops landed. My lolo saw these big military trucks with American flags rolling through the dusty roads of the provinces.
Announcer 1: Now, fulfilling his pledge to the Filipino people, General Douglas MacArthur has returned.
Announcer 2: Crowds wildly welcome MacArthur and their freedom. They have starved and suffered but lived.
Gabrielle: I picture him really little and sprinting toward these big military trucks, and the American GIs would throw food to the kids that were chasing them. My lolo remembers them throwing cans of SPAM.
Mom: They would exchange cans of SPAM for fresh eggs and bring dozens of eggs to the American GIs, and he’d get a lot of SPAM.
Gabrielle: For him, these cans of SPAM and these kind of foods that American soldiers had, this was the gifts from the saviors.
Accouncer 3: Food at last after days of starvation, but relief for all is in sight.
Gabrielle: This was freedom. After my Lolo caught his first can of SPAM, he fell in love with the idea of American freedom. For him, SPAM meant opportunity: a hope that something better is coming. It became his mission in life to move his family, eventually, to the US. His son, my uncle, was the first person in my family to emigrate here, and he would send care packages back to my family in the Philippines, that we called balikbayan boxes, full of SPAM.
My lola remembers opening the boxes, seeing the blue-and-yellow can and thinking, "We’ll be together soon in America." For us, SPAM is a symbol of love. It’s a way of saying, "I’m thinking about you." It turns out a similar pattern played out all over the world.
Food Historian 1: Hello. Can you hear me?
Gabrielle: Hi. I think we lost connection. Sorry.
Food Historian 2: Hey Gabrielle. Sorry. I’m in grading-papers mode and--
Gabrielle: I made some calls to food historians.
Food Historian 2: The largest numbers of SPAM dispersal happened during the second phase of the Pacific theater.
Food Historian 3: Places like Guam, Hawaii, Philippines--
Gabrielle: They told me that wherever there was an American military presence, SPAM was left in its wake.
Food Historian 3: It’s almost an informal way to spread American democracy.
Gabrielle: I also wanted to know: why did it stay? It’s one thing for American GIs to bring it in, have it be part of their food rations, and sometimes give it away, but then it becomes this staple. How does that happen?
Food Historian 2: I’m not sure. I was trying to research it before we spoke. I was literally looking through historical documents and--
Food Historian 3: There hasn’t been enough history done of it.
Gabrielle: No one could answer my question.
Food Historian 2: I can’t give you the historical answer.
Gabrielle: The next logical step was to go straight to the source, to a town called Austin. Not Austin, Texas; Austin, Minnesota, SPAMtown USA.
Julia: Gabrielle and I journey to the birthplace of SPAM after the break.
Gabrielle: That looks like SPAM.
Gabrielle: It looks like a SPAM can.
Julia: On a hot August afternoon, we stepped off the plane in Minneapolis into the scorching sun and began our two-hour drive south-
Gabrielle: It is beautiful. It looks like a painting with the corn and the clouds. The sky is a soft blue.
Julia: -through cornfields-
Gabrielle: This road feels like it goes forever.
Julia: -tons of cornfields-
Gabrielle: Yes, I think this is, in fact, the middle of the country. This is--
Julia: -to Austin, Minnesota, the birthplace of SPAM.
Gabrielle: Look at all the nice porches.
Julia: Driving around certain parts of SPAMtown, it feels like driving onto a Leave It to Beaver set from the 1950s. It's a seafoam-green house, a little brick church steeple. It’s a mix of farmland, strip malls, suburban single-family homes, and a quaint little downtown.
Gabrielle: On the left is this little cabin, and it says, "The AmericInn."
Julia: Our hotel, the AmericInn, felt like a ski lodge.
Gabrielle: This looks like a living room with family photos on the wall.
Julia: In the corner, next to the front desk-
Gabrielle: It says George and Lillian Hormel.
Julia: -there are all these old family portraits of the Hormel family.
Gabrielle: The photos of the creators of SPAM are here, but then when I look at these white men in long coats and bowler hats in this sepia-toned photograph in this American town, I’m like, "How did their SPAM come to the Philippines and become my SPAM?" These are not my ancestors. [laughs] Right away, at the hotel breakfast, it became clear that SPAM is the main attraction of Austin.
Hotel Guest 1: Our parents all ate SPAM.
Hotel Guest 2: Yes.
Gabrielle: Where are you guys all from?
Hotel Guest 3: Michigan.
Hotel Guest 1: I live in Florida now.
Hotel Guest 2: Fargo, North Dakota and darned proud of it, too, I might add.
Gabrielle: People from all over the world travel here to visit the famous SPAM Museum.
Hotel Guest 2: It was used heavily by the troops.
Gabrielle: The North Dakotan that we met at breakfast said that he served in the military. He worked in the kitchens, where he cooked SPAM.
Hotel Guest 1: I think that was where my dad got his taste for it.
Hotel Guest 2: Sure.
Gabrielle: The woman from Florida said that her father was first introduced to SPAM during World War II.
Hotel Guest 1: He was all over the Pacific.
Gabrielle: Oh, yes. Well, it’s funny that you say that your dad fought in [crosstalk] Of course, I told her about my grandfather. American GIs would throw cans of SPAM at-
Hotel Guest 3: Oh cool.
Gabrielle: -at the kids.
Hotel Guest 1: That’s why the GIs would've-- They were fed it a lot and I think that’s why they had a distaste for it, because it was pushed at them all the time.
Gabrielle: I was actually so surprised to hear that her father didn’t like my lolo’s beloved SPAM.
Hotel Guest 1: There was a lot of maybe ugly memories associated with it because it brought back memories of the war.
Gabrielle: For her dad, it was something that was probably tied to one of the hardest and most violent moments of his life.
Hotel Guest 1: That part was hard.
Gabrielle: Whereas for my grandpa, for him, getting--
Hotel Guest 1: It was a good memory.
Gabrielle: It was a good memory.
Hotel Guest 3: Well, it makes me feel good that we--
Julia: Next, we went back downtown, where we were faced with a vision in blue.
Gabrielle: That looks like SPAM.
Gabrielle: It looks like a SPAM can.
Julia: It does, and the yellow--
Gabrielle: We arrived at the SPAM Museum: a SPAM-shaped building in the center of downtown Austin. I want to find out how SPAM became a staple food in places like the Philippines. We’re entering the SPAM Museum. It has a distinct Willy Wonka vibe. Julia, look, the SPAM line. Hovering above your head is this SPAM production line with these brightly-colored SPAM cans chugging along the conveyor belt.
Savile Lord: I’m Savile. Savile Lord.
Gabrielle: Hi, I’m Gabrielle.
Savile: Gabrielle! Nice to meet you.
Gabrielle: Nice to meet you. We were immediately greeted by the woman who runs the museum.
Savile: I’m the SPAManager.
Gabrielle: Saville Lord, the SPAManager.
Savile: Everything with SPAM we make, we have fun with. We have SPAMbassadors who help us here out the museum. We have about 20 of them. Then I’m the SPAMmanager. We really encourage people when they leave the museum to have a SPAMtastic day. We serve SPAMples, which are just a little piece of SPAM with a pretzel.
Savile: SPAMples. It’s really very nice. What I thought I would do is just show you the SPAM ballet.
Julia: They play footage from the meatpacking plant with forklifts carrying hundreds and hundreds of SPAM cans, all set to a ballet. You forget that this is all taking place at a slaughterhouse.
Savile: It is several miles’ worth of cans and that is going into that six-storey pressure cooker.
Gabrielle: When you’re in the factory, does it feel dizzying like this, SPAM just flying? [laughs]
Savile: No, it doesn’t go quite as fast, but it’s a lot of SPAM. It is a lot of SPAM.
Gabrielle: SPAManager Savile told us the history of this magical meat.
Savile: SPAM was originally about the length of a loaf of bread.
Gabrielle: Oh, that’s huge. Oh my God.
Savile: It was a luncheon loaf.
Gabrielle: Oh my God.
Savile: You would serve four or five people, the average size of a family, and you wouldn’t have to worry about refrigeration.
Gabrielle: Behind all the whimsy, SPAM was born out of a really dark time. It was created in 1937, during the Great Depression. The country was struggling. Families needed cheap food, workers needed jobs, and companies were losing money. The Hormel Company came up with a clever way to avoid laying off its workers. They invented a new, cheap product that would create more work and bring in more revenue.
From the parts of the pig that were normally tossed out, they created a salty, fatty source of protein: spiced ham, or SPAM. Then a few years later, World War II hit, and SPAM spread all over the world. It wasn’t the healthiest thing to send with the soldiers, but it preserved well and it was packed with calories.
Savile: There’s a lot of people over there. Why don’t we head over into the Philippines and then we can head back over there so it’s not too loud?
Gabrielle: Then she took us around the corner.
Savile: This is our international area.
Gabrielle: There were all of these booths dedicated to South Korea, Hawaii, Latin America, Japan, China. Can I look at the Philippines one?
Savile: Absolutely. Go right ahead.
Gabrielle: There was this whole booth in the museum dedicated to the Philippines. Oh, yes, the balikbayan box. How do you guys know what that is?
Savile: Oh, we definitely know what the balikbayan box is. For those of you who don’t know what the balikbayan box is, it is a gift box that people usually in the United States would send home to their families.
Gabrielle: Those care packages that my uncle would lovingly fill with SPAM and send back to my lola in the Philippines, here they were on display in a museum exhibit.
Julia: I wonder how did the company come to know about the way it was used in this way? It’s almost like you need a food anthropologist to--
Savile: We have a food anthropologist on staff here.
Gabrielle: Oh, you do?
Savile: We absolutely do. Yes.
Gabrielle: What do they-- The fact that Filipinos love SPAM so much felt like Filipino insider baseball to me. The SPAM Museum made clear all along, SPAM loved us back. It says, "As a token of our love for the Philippines, we have created a special Filipino flavor, SPAM Tocino." For decades after American GIs packed up and left the Philippines, the company knew that it had captured the hearts of an accidental market, and they worked hard to keep it. They became experts in Filipino culture.
Savile: There was a boy band called ALL4SPAM in the Philippines between 2017 and 2018, and all they did was sing about SPAM.
Gabrielle: No way. What? Hormel even created a Filipino boy band, which Filipinos love boy bands, and they styled it after the Backstreet Boys. ALL4SPAM, these four boys dressed in all white, are part of this boy band and they just sing about SPAM?
Gabrielle: Walking around the museum, immersed in the story that Hormel tells about SPAM, it’s easy to fall in love with this product like my lolo did. My grandpa would be in tears. [laughs] He’d be in tears. Oh my God, I feel emotional. He’d be so happy to be here. Forget that it was originally leftover pig parts born of the Great Depression. Forget that American GIs hated SPAM so much. The company kept a hefty file of hate mail from soldiers trashing SPAM. Forget that it was spread all over the world because of war. Here at the museum, SPAM is all color and light, this symbol of opportunity and family. Today, 80 years after it landed in the Pacific, love for SPAM can be complicated.
Craig Santos Perez: There is no path to SPAM. SPAM is the path.
Gabrielle: For that Guamanian SPAM poet, Craig Santos Perez--
Craig: Guam is considered the SPAM capital of the world. On average--
Gabrielle: His poetry makes a connection between Guam’s undying love for SPAM-
Craig: The end result can be found in the newspaper’s obituary pages.
Gabrielle: -and the island’s health crisis from its dependence on imported canned foods. I talked to a health clinic in Hawaii that’s actually trying to help local Hawaiians make healthier, homemade versions of SPAM.
Craig: The name itself stands for Specially Processed Army Meat. Salted Pork And More. Some People Are Missing.
Gabrielle: My lolo died a few years ago, in part from diabetes complications. When he was first diagnosed, SPAM was the first food to go but for him, SPAM could forever do no wrong. In a way, his first can of SPAM was a gelatinous seed that planted the idea of his American Dream, a dream that came true for him in the end. One by one, all his kids came to the United States and later brought him here too. Now, here I am, an American.
Santos: [burp] Thank you. Sorry. I always do a burp at the end of that poem.
Gabrielle: [laughs] This is where I thought the story ended. Cased closed. Let’s go home. Throughout my reporting process, this other thing kept coming up, this thing that had nothing to do with my original question but all of these historians I talked to were like, "Well, are you going to talk about the strike?" At first, when I heard about it, I was like, "What strike?" They were like, "Well, you can’t talk about SPAM without talking about the strike." When I was in the museum, I asked about it. We also talked to someone who mentioned that there was a strike at the SPAM factory in the '80s. Do you guys have history of that here?
Savile: We don’t talk about the strike here at the museum, no, because that wasn’t directly related to SPAM.
Gabrielle: Oh, okay. I see. We supposedly had to talk about this strike, but then no one would talk to us about it.
Gabrielle: I started calling local Austonians.
Local 1: Hello?
Gabrielle: Can you hear me okay?
Local 2: I sure can. Yes, it sounds perfect.
Gabrielle: Great. Thank you so much for-- When I say people don’t talk about the strike, I mean to this day, they don’t talk about the strike.
Local 3: Oh, you better believe people don’t want to talk about it. There are still people who are not speaking to each other.
Local 1: It was like the elephant in the room. Nobody really talked about it.
Local 2: We don’t talk about these things. We don’t talk about things that are difficult or cause pain.
Gabrielle: The strike tore this town apart.
Local 1: I knew two brothers who were just fighting and, for many years, did not talk to one another because to cross that picket line was the worst.
Gabrielle: Families and friendships were torn apart.
Local 1: They were not speaking and did not speak for years. Parents against children, children against parents.
Gabrielle: This is a dark stain on the town.
Local 2: That was horrible.
Local 3: You can feel the trauma of this strike. It didn't destroy Austin, but it did change it forever. It is part of the creation myth of that town.
Gabrielle: If there's a defining moment for the town, it's this.
Local 3: Everybody's got something ugly in their past that defines them whether we want it to or not. There are a lot of things you can say about Batman, but at some point, you're going to have to talk about the Joker. I don't think you can talk about Austin without talking about the Joker, which is this strike.
Gabrielle: That's next week on The Experiment.
Kelly Prime: This episode of the experiment was produced by Gabrielle Berbey and Julia Longoria with help from Peter Breslin and Alina Coleman. Editing by me, Kelly Prime, with help from Emily Botein, Jenny Lawton, Scott Stossel, and Katherine Wells. Special thanks to Noella Levy for her musical stylings and to the Mauer County Historical Society. Fact-check by William Brennan and Michelle Ciarrocca. Sound design by David Herman with additional engineering by Joe Plourde. Music by Tasty Morsels and Alexander Overington.
Our team also includes Natalia Ramirez and Tracy Hunte. If you enjoyed today's episode, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Next week, make sure to listen to part two of our three-part series, SPAM: How the American Dream Got Canned. The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
Savile: That's the SPAM [inaudible 00:22:15]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.