The State of Aloha

I must have been 24 years old when I moved back to Hawaii. I had been living on the Mainland for seven years, going to college in California then law school in Kansas, before I landed a job in Honolulu working at a court. It was a great job. I was thrilled to be back home in the islands.

And I distinctly recall the first time I had it — again. It was late at night in this modest place off of King Street aptly named Anyplace Lounge in McCully. Someone had handed me a small, warm, white equilateral triangle. Two pieces of nuitrientless, bleached white bread held together a thin layer of fried egg, mayo and Hawaii’s all-time favorite luncheon meat: spiced ham (Spam).

The first bite was pure heaven. The next bite was dipped in a concoction of ketchup and hot sauce on a nearby plate. That was good too. As I sat there enjoying my Spam sandwich wondering when my karaoke song would come on, I knew I was home.

Go to any gas station cashier, convenience store, grocery chain or rural variety store on any island and you’ll find it usually tightly wrapped up in cellophane and black seaweed on a generous helping of rice. If you’re lucky, the Spam is fried around the edges and a little brown. Yes, it’s the one and only Spam musubi.

Last week the world took a pause to acknowledge that this miracle meat — sometimes reviled, oftentimes celebrated — turned 80 years old. It all goes back to Minnesota, the original world headquarters of the Hormel Food Co. Hormel made a lot of pork products, but had a problem with excessive pork shoulder. It didn’t know what to do with the leftover parts.

And so Jay Hormel took six simple ingredients: the pork shoulder and ham, a healthy portion of salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrate. The result was Spam. That was in 1937. Hormel has not stopped making the stuff since.

America and most of the world, for that matter, have a love-hate relationship with the blue can from Hormel. When it was introduced, the country was still recovering from the Great Depression. Folks were looking for ways to save money and get food on the table.

Shortly after its creation, most of the world was plunged in a massive armed conflict. Soldiers were moving across continents and fighting in terrible conditions. Spam was sent to London and the rest of England during its darkest days of the blitz and World War II. It was great. It didn’t need to be refrigerated. It’s cheap. It even tasted pretty good (as long as you cooked it).

It went with American troops to Asia, Europe and the Pacific. And that’s when it hit Hawaii. Like war-torn England, Hawaii was an ideal place for Spam to proliferate. We were isolated, our food was carefully rationed and supplies depended on tight shipping lines.

Spam was seen as the miracle food that didn’t need much maintenance. The shelf life made it worth its weight in bringing out here. After the war when soldiers went home, most of them were ready to leave Spam behind. Perhaps it brought back bitter memories of poverty from the Great Depression for some. For others, it was an acute reminder of life as a GI. Either way, the meat carried a stigma on the Mainland.

But in Hawaii — where the isolation, monopoly on shipping imports and all the other factors that made it thrive in the first place were present — there was no such stigma and the love affair continues. In 2013, Hormel reported that Hawaii alone consumes 7 million cans of Spam a year.

How can we do it? How can we eat so much of the stuff? Especially when we know that it’s far from the most nutritious foods out there. Hawaii may be dependent on imports, but we still have fresh fish, vegetables and fruits available these days. We know that a high-sodium diet causes all kinds of health problems. So how can we eat Spam at a per capita rate of five cans per person every year? The answer is simple: Spam has become part of local culture.

The musubi is the perfect example of how local culture works. Where else does meat from Minnesota go so well with Japanese-style rice and nori to be sold to any hungry traveler at a gas station, Longs Drugs or 7-Eleven? Nowhere. That’s why it is iconic in the islands.

That is why we celebrate it and proudly fry it up for breakfast, lunch or dinner. That’s why Hormel hosts an annual festival in April in Honolulu: the Waikiki Spam Jam. And that’s why I was so happy to eat it in McCully nearly 10 years ago.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”