A journey into the land of SPAM

The annual SPAM Jam is the biggest food festival in Hawaii, as well as the largest SPAM-related event in the world. It is very odd, and very fun.


A journey into the land of SPAM

The annual SPAM Jam is the biggest food festival in Hawaii, as well as the largest SPAM-related event in the world. It is very odd, and very fun.

Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, has been active lately. As Lokelani Puha, a hula dancer and poet, told the New York Times, “Our deity is coming down to play.” Since May 3 of this year, volcanic eruptions on the southeast side of the Big Island of Hawaii have resulted in earthquakes, fissures opening in the ground, and lava flows devouring homes before spilling into the sea, creating a noxious gas made up of steam, hydrochloric acid, and volcanic glass shards.

But five days before Pele unleashed her wrath, there was a kinder, gentler eruption happening some 200 miles away on the island of O’ahu, as people gathered in Waikiki to celebrate Hawaii’s love of a certain food item: SPAM.

That SPAM could be considered a culinary delicacy is ludicrous to some. The canned meat product — made with “Six Simple Ingredients” the company’s website cheerfully tells us — served the nation well during World War II, when a food with a long shelf life that didn’t need to be refrigerated was welcome on the front lines. In the years since it’s been derided in some quarters as a second rate substitute, a “mystery meat” that you settled for when you couldn’t afford the real thing. (Not to mention the infamous Monty Python sketch, where SPAM starts out as a side dish at a café, only to increasingly dominate the menu, which indirectly led to unwanted e-mails pejoratively referred to as “spam” — an association that the product’s maker, Hormel Foods, has sought to combat by asking that their product be spelled in all capital letters.)

The infamous Monty Python clip

But in Hawaii, SPAM is not just consumed, it’s revered. The islands of Aloha eat more of the stuff than any other state in the U.S. — an estimated seven million cans a year. “It’s a big part of Hawaii’s culture,” Penelope Ng Pack, Miss Chinatown Hawaii, says.

SPAM was introduced to the islands due to the heavy U.S. military presence there (the military remains one of Hawaii’s major industries). That led to its spread among the civilian population, resulting for many in a childhood spent growing up regularly eating SPAM and eggs. Even the state’s McDonald’s sell breakfast platters of SPAM, eggs, and rice.

But SPAM’s gone well beyond being a breakfast staple here. It’s also Hawaii’s go-to snack food, most popularly in the form of SPAM musubi — a small block of cooked rice, topped with a slice of fried SPAM, and wrapped in nori, a thin sheet of seaweed — readily available in specialty shops and convenience stores. Or you can indulge your SPAM jones by picking up a can of SPAM-flavored macadamia nuts. Last year, there were even stories about a “SPAM black market,” as an increase in thefts of the meat product led some retailers to keep it locked up, like cigarettes or electronics.

All of which makes Hawaii a natural place for the annual event known as the Waikiki SPAM Jam. The Jam came together 16 years ago, the co-creation of Barbara Campbell (Vice President of Retail Leasing and Property Management for the Outrigger resorts chain) and Bitsy Kelley (until March 2017, Outrigger’s Vice President of Corporate Relations), of the event. Campbell admits she thought her “quirky” idea might not have legs. “I didn’t know where it was going to go, because I thought, ‘This could just fall flat on its face. Do people really want to celebrate SPAM?’” But since making its debut, the Jam has grown to become both Hawaii’s biggest food festival, as well as the largest SPAM event in the world.

This year, over 35,000 attendees flooded Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s main drag, jousting for position among the non-food vendors (collapsible water bottles embellished with SPAM Jam logo were a hot item), three entertainment stages (one stage was devoted exclusively to hula), and 22 booths set up by local restaurants serving up SPAM in more incarnations than you thought possible.

VIP’s were lucky to get a preview of the day’s wares at a special SPAMMANIA reception, held at the refurbished International Market Place. In between SPAM-swag giveaways and photo-ops with characters dressed as a can of SPAM and a SPAM musubi, attendees mingled with SPAM fans like Kathyrn Teruya, the current Miss Hawaii. Elsewhere, Keith Kong, executive chef at BASALT Restaurant, could be found talking proudly of the restaurant’s being chosen to bring this year’s Great American SPAM Championship recipe winner to sweet, sticky life: SPAM Monkey Bread (a recipe created by Jim Cutler, of Springfield, Illinois). “It’s got SPAM folded in between layers of biscuit, and then we drizzle maple bourbon syrup butter all over it,” he explains. “It’s got two of my most favorite things: bourbon and SPAM. How could I go wrong?”

The Jam requires patience; there’s a long line at every food booth. Incorporating SPAM into a sandwich — a SPAMwich? — was the most popular option. Gordon Biersch offered tangy mango BBQ SPAM sliders, Reef Bar & Market Grill had delectable 50/50 SPAM Reuben Sliders, and Aloha Table sold their twist on a local favorite, the Loco Moco (SPAM and Kobe beef topped with topped with gravy and a fried egg). There was Flour & Barley’s Aloha Pie with SPAM as a topping, Buho Cantina’s SPAM tacos, and the gooey pleasures of Stripsteak’s SPAM loaded tater tots (the three basic food groups: SPAM, potatoes, and cheese). This year’s most popular Jam item were Hormel’s SPAM fries, likely in part because they were passed out for free. It was a preview of a product Hormel plans to make available in grocery stores. And the launch will be held — where else? — in Hawaii.

But most pleasing were the inventive ways SPAM was worked into local cuisine. Kirin Restaurant produced a delicious SPAM dim sum plate, while Atlantis Seafood and Steak created a tasty SPAM lau lau (SPAM and butterfish wrapped in ti leaves and steamed). Not to mention crunchy SPAM katsu (SPAM slices dipped in egg, rolled in Panko, and fried). There was even SPAM for dessert. Eggs ‘n Things’ mini SPAM cheesecake cups and Duke’s Waikiki’s signature Hula Pie were each generously topped with small bits of SPAM, giving the treats the same sweet/salty appeal as salted caramel. Duke’s ended up selling over 700 slices.

Adding a touch of exclusivity, these foodstuffs were only available during the Jam; none were served at the associated restaurants. But while the locals — an estimated 60-70% of attendees — delighted in tasting the many varieties of SPAM dishes on offer, when asked what their favorite SPAM dish is they invariably opted for something more simple and straightforward. Kathryn Teruya, Miss Hawaii, cited a love of SPAM musubi. Chef Kong has fond memories of “one of the very first things I learned to cook; a SPAM and egg sandwich on Wonder Bread with Best Foods Mayonnaise.” Penelope Ng Pack, Miss Chinatown Hawaii, likes her SPAM for breakfast, saying, “You have to slice it really thin and crispy.” And Toby Tamaye, the Jam’s marketing director, got a dreamy look in his eye as he described the proper way to serve SPAM, eggs, and rice: “Not just scrambled eggs; you’ve got to make it like sunny-side up or over easy — with the yolk all over the SPAM! It’s so good!” As a Hawaiian comfort food, SPAM remains unsurpassed.

The organizers are already looking forward to next year’s Jam (to be held April 27, 2019). “We are now a legacy event,” says Campbell with pride. “It’s a well oiled machine.”

“It’s very crowded, so we know there’s still more room to grow.” Tamaye says. “We’re excited for the future. And 20 years, 25 years, 30 years down the line we’ll see how things go.” 20, 25, 30 years of SPAM? It’s not inconceivable.

Gillian Gaar is a journalist and author living in Seattle.