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The Strenuous Life

Luke Woodard | September 28, 2021


From wildland fire stations to a wilderness canoe camp, the SPAM® brand finds Itself at the center of unexpected subcultures

I was eight years old the first time I took a canoe into the forest. There were ten of us, including our trip leaders, and we set up camp on a small island where we would spend the next four days. Vermont Route 15 was so close that we could hear trucks rolling over the rumble strips, but to a group of boys so young that we could barely tie our own shoes, the Green River Reservoir was as wild and rugged a place as we had ever been. I remember crawling out of my tent on the first morning, the air cold and damp, and walking into the makeshift “kitchen area” where my staffman was preparing breakfast. We were having pineapple slices, english muffins, and SPAM® classic, something I had never heard of until that moment. “Trust me,” he said as he coated everything in leftover pineapple juice that sizzled dramatically on the hot pan, “I think you’ll like it.”

It was the first time any of us campers had ever tried SPAM® classic, but for those of us who returned to camp for many more summers, it was certainly not the last. SPAM® brand was the closest thing we had to an official food. In this regard, my summer camp was not unique. Since its introduction in 1937, the SPAM® brand has found a place at the heart of a number of unique subcultures. For military veterans, regardless of branch, a can of SPAM® products is a small but intimate reminder of their time in the service. Wildland firefighters across North America carry out hundreds of cans every year as they venture forth to spend weeks living in the backcountry, facing down some of the biggest fires in the world. In Hawaii, big-wave surfers come back from the water and recharge with a plate of their favorite SPAM® Musubi recipe. In my case, a can of SPAM® classic evokes memories of early mornings in the woods, rolling up a damp tent and loading up the boats for a long day on the river.

For over half my life, I’ve spent summers at Keewaydin: the oldest canoe camp in North America. Founded in 1893, Keewaydin began as a small outfit where guides led boys on month-long expeditions through the Maine woods, travelling light and living simply. The camp has grown since then, relocating to Vermont and opening a branch for young women, but canoe trips are still the central focus. Keewaydin has the world’s largest fleet of wood canvas canoes and every camper will take one out to experience a taste of what the founder — a man with the muscular nickname of “The Commodore” — referred to as “the strenuous life.”

Food, almost as much as the paddling itself, sits at the center of my Keewaydin memories. Camp is where I learned to cook. I remember boiling pasta over an open fire when I was eight years old, my staffman making sure I kept the coals hot and the flames low. Even today, preparing dinner in my kitchen, I think back to when I learned how to chop an onion on a piece of wood, rain falling softly on a nylon tarp overhead.

Simply put, food is important at Keewaydin, and as anyone who has spent a summer there can tell you, no food is more emblematic than a can of SPAM® classic.

These memories are unusually vivid. As the blessings of convenience remove more and more friction from our lives, spending a day pursuing such fundamental goals — moving from one place to another, finding a place to sleep, feeding yourself — is becoming increasingly foreign and ever more satisfying. Downtime on a canoe trip feels truly earned, and every bite of food tastes better once you’ve lugged it for a mile over a dry creek bed. The setting, in my experience, is enough to make even an ordinary meal memorable and distinct. There’s a saying to the effect of “nobody can remember a specific campsite until you remind them what they ate for dinner that night.” Simply put, food is important at Keewaydin, and as anyone who has spent a summer there can tell you, no food is more emblematic than a can of SPAM® classic.

New staff round off their training with a SPAM® brand cooking contest, pairing off to see who can come up with the most original (and tasty) dish using only the equipment that they would have at hand on a trip. Another long standing tradition is the annual carnival, where campers design their own concession stands in the style of an old-fashioned state fair. Most of the attractions are games, but food booths are always popular. A retrospective in the camp newspaper notes that “SPAM® fried rice [has] been served in great quantities over the years.” There was also a short-lived “sledgehammer strength contest which launched cans of SPAM® in unpredictable directions.”

While these small celebrations of the SPAM® brand are fun, its true place in Keewaydin life is in the Wannigan Room — the camp’s own private outfitter. Since Keewaydin trippers are not “living off the land” in the true sense of the term, we pack our food before we leave, meticulously planning each meal and accounting for every pound.

Wannigan room

The pre-trip packing process, however, is no simple visit to a grocery store. Consider that a trip leader has one hour to organize a pack-out for ten people. Furthermore, this does not only include food but equipment as well. Discovering a missed item when you’re already miles away from the nearest road is bad news. Add in the fact that Pete Cahn, head of the Wannigan Room, might be busy helping four trips at the same time, and you have a logistical challenge that demands forethought, experience and organization.

In recognition of these difficulties, Cahn, at the end of every summer, presents one trip leader with the SPAM® brand Trophy: an award for what he considers the most organized and efficient pack-out. The trophy was established by Cahn’s predecessor, Jack Wearing — the Keewaydin icon whose famously high expectations of preparation and punctuality remain central to the Wannigan Room ethos. In terms of naming the trophy, it must have been an easy choice. SPAM® brand has long been the most popular item in the Wannigan Room, and Cahn reports that he can easily go through four hundred cans in a summer.

Wannigans — the stout wooden boxes that we use to carry our supplies — are themselves a part of Keewaydin’s heritage. The simple design was ubiquitous among the French-Canadian fur traders of the 19th century and was later adopted by early Keewaydin guides. Wannigans more closely resemble an antique foot locker than any of the sleek plastic canisters you might find in the camping section of a sporting goods store, but to this day I have yet to encounter a container that sits so nicely in the hull of a wood-canvas canoe.

A wannigan’s rectangular shape is one of its greatest strengths — that “piece of wood” I learned to cut an onion on was, in fact, the top of a wannigan — but, on longer trips in particular, those dimensions can present their own challenges. Packing a box full of traditional, cylindrical cans will leave a great deal of unnecessary air space. Capacity is limited, and when the goal is to pack as much food as possible — on a long day, a canoeist can easily burn upwards of 3,500 calories — efficiency matters. SPAM® classic, with its easily-identified rectangular can was designed with space-conscious packing in mind. After all, its owes its explosion in popularity to World War II, when there was a critical need for hearty food that could be shipped across the ocean in great quantities.

This, however, may not be the entire story of the SPAM® brand’s uncanny ability to become a subcultural emblem. Dried foods and powdered mixes can also be packed tightly into shipping containers and boxes, but the fact remains that no freeze-dried meal packet will ever be as hearty or versatile as a single can of SPAM® classic. From the pineapple glaze of my early memories to the recipe booklet that Cahn maintains in the Wannigan Room — SPAM® Paella, SPAM® Stir Fry, Antarctic Hoosh, to name a few — the possibilities for creativity are extensive. Like the firefighters who spend long stretches camped out in the backcountry, Keewaydin canoe trippers want to avoid, at all costs, growing sick of whatever food we have on hand.

An assortment of different Spam varieties on a shelf

I suspect, however, that there is more to the SPAM® brand’s capacity to inspire devotion than pure practicality. To whatever extent that food can have a personality, SPAM® classic has one. Maybe it stems from something so simple as how the unusually shaped can feels in your hand, with its rounded corners and oversized pull tab. It could also be the name — the way it rolls off your tongue like the name of a favorite band — or the bright-yellow comic book letters on the label. Whatever it is, there is something strangely endearing and vaguely humorous about the SPAM® brand, a wink-and-nod, like the can itself is in on the secret.

Those who didn’t grow up where SPAM® brand is a part of the local cuisine or have never been in a place where it has achieved such a status might walk past the grocery store shelf without a second look. To a wildland firefighter, however, or a veteran, or someone who has spent a summer paddling canoes across wide and windy lakes, those cans of SPAM® classic, neatly stacked and placed in rows, might cause them to pause for a moment. And whether or not they put one in their cart, they will look at the shelves and be reminded of a day when they were miles away from a grocery store, tired and hungry, feeling the burn in their muscles that is the true sign of a day well lived.