Tammy O’Connell of Muskego wants to “reawaken” people to SPAM.
O’Connell, a sewing professional known locally as “the SPAM Queen,” has done just that by winning the blue ribbon at this year’s Wisconsin State Fair for her SPAMakopita, based on the popular Greek dish spanakopita.
“If people don’t know it they should get with it and try a slice,” she said of the meat product in the iconic blue tin. “It’s time for adults to realize there are some really good dishes” made with SPAM.
And what better reason to crack open a can of Spiced Ham, (what SPAM stands for) than to commemorate its 75th anniversary this year.
To celebrate, SPAM’s launched two new flavors — jalapeno and black pepper — bringing the total number of varieties to 16.
“As we all know, Americans’ palates are definitely changing,” said Nicole Behne, SPAM senior brand manager. “They want bold and spicy flavors.”
The new flavors, originally planned as a limited edition, are doing so well SPAM decided to incorporate them permanently into the product line.
“After 75 years people are coming up with new and exciting ways to use our product,” Behne said.
But how is the canned meat staying relevant during a time when buying fresh and local is all the rage?
“It’s all about the versatility of the SPAM brand,” Behne explains.
SPAM is about indulging in one of life’s little pleasures in moderation, she said. “I think it’s kind of a conversation piece, too,” she said.
SPAM really got its start during World War II when 15 million cans a week were shipped overseas.
That’s also how the canned meat gained such a following in Hawaii — soldiers stationed there ate SPAM sandwiches.
“That was a huge part of embedding us into America’s culture,” Behne said.
Nowadays, a can of SPAM, which is good for about three years from the time of purchase, is a nice option for people living in Hawaii where meat isn’t always economical or plentiful, she said.
O’Connell remembers seeing a lot of SPAM during a vacation in Hawaii and decided to reacquaint herself with the canned meat she used to eat growing up.
Her verdict: “This is pretty tasty stuff.”
For the Wisconsin State Fair winning SPAMakopita, O’Connell used turkey SPAM to make the dish healthier. She likes that she can serve it as a main dish or an appetizer. She also liked the play on words.
Two years ago O’Connell won second place for her SPAM with confetti pasta and bechamel cheese sauce — a dish she makes when she’s in the mood for comfort food.
SPAM has sponsored recipe competitions at state fairs for more than two decades and as of this year participated in 26 state fairs, including Wisconsin’s.
Beyond being convenient, SPAM has become an iconic part of America’s culinary culture. There’s a SPAM museum, an exhibit in the Smithsonian, a Broadway play “SPAMalot” and plenty of SPAM tchotchkes (Band-Aids, T-shirts, footballs — even a SPAM slicer).
And although Behne declined to discuss actual revenue numbers, “we’ve never really seen a dip in sales.”
“We’re doing really, really well here in the United States,” she said, adding the product also is gaining popularity in Japan, China and the Philippines.
“We’re in over 46 countries now,” she said.
Part of what makes SPAM attractive is its convenience. It can be ready with minimal, or even zero, preparation as the meat already is cooked.
A SPAM lover will say “it’s definitely part of their weekly recipe repertoire,” Behne said. “It’s a convenient protein and it’s easy for mom to get on the table quickly.”
For Behne, a mother of two, her go-to recipes include the classic SPAM and eggs or throwing the meat in some macaroni and cheese.
The most popular way to eat SPAM is on a sandwich, she said. In 2008 the company starting selling SPAM singles — individually wrapped SPAM slices that have a particular following among hikers and campers.
She’s even seen pictures of triathletes eating SPAM during a race for the salt and protein.
“It’s amazing what people can do with our product.”