I am skilled at classical French cooking. I have a Higher Certificate from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. I also, however, love Spam. (In case you were wondering, Spam pairs well with Gewürztraminer.) I kept kosher for a few years (long story). When I broke away from the dietary laws — because I was quitting smoking and could not maintain so many forms of self-abnegation at once — the food item I cheated with was Spam.
It symbolizes both the part of me that is Korean and the part of me that is American — two identities that are difficult to unite. More important, I associate Spam with relaxation, being present, and not worrying about what you can't control. Why? Because Spam evokes beaches, pineapples, funny tropical shirts: i.e., Hawaii. It's the one place in the world where I can be un-stressed-out, and it happens to be the only U.S. state that loves Spam as much as I do.
Mainland Americans have given me no end of grief for this. First rule of Spam Club: You never talk about Spam Club. Otherwise, you risk social death. Case in point: When I was at university, my friend Mike told me that his freshman-year roommate threw out Mike's Spam and gave him $5 to cover the cost. But Mike and I both had a really good excuse for this embarrassing proclivity: We're of Korean extraction, and Korea is the world's largest consumer of Spam outside the United States.
A bit of history: Spam has been manufactured by the Austin, Minnesota-based Hormel Foods Corporation since 1937. It became widespread in Korea during and after the Korean War (1950 to 1953), when the U.S. government shipped loads of Spam to Korea, at a time when fresh meat was hard to come by. Korea was by no means the only beneficiary of this largesse; during and after WWII, the U.K. also turned to Spam to supplement monthly meat rations. In fact, articles on Spam's role in wartime Britain bear titles such as "Spam: Did It Save the Nation?" (Here are some nostalgic British WWII-era Spam recipes.) Unlike the U.K., however, where they poke fun at Spam, Korean Spam consumption was unironic.
While modern-day Brits no longer regularly eat Spam, it has remained part of the diet in Korea. In September 2017, Korean sales of Spam reached 1 billion tins. And Spam's Korean co-distributor, Cheil Jedang, announced in January that its top-selling New Year gift box was Spam. In my day, the tins were usually packed in velvet-lined boxes and wrapped in white satin ribbon.
Spam is an important part of Korean home cooking. It's the sine qua non ingredient of kimchi jjigae (stewed kimchi) and budae jjigae — literally "army stew."
My mother, a biochemist with a particular fear of foodborne illnesses, was virulently anti-pork, making it sound like a veritable menagerie of revolting organisms — trichinosis, tapeworm, hepatitis, all reproducing at exponential rates. Yet we always had Spam in our pantry.
Apparently Koreans are now accepting their love of the lowbrow: David Chang, the Michelin-starred Korean-American chef, is extolling Spam.
Spam's enduring popularity in Korea surprises me, because I had assumed Koreans were now prosperous enough to abandon any food item that you need a key to open. This is a common phenomenon, though — hardship habits die hard. Some Germans raised on the substitute coffee product "Ersatzkaffee" — either during the Second World War or subsequently in the former GDR — occasionally used the bad stuff over real coffee much longer than was necessary. Wartime food is a symbol of survival.