Flour and yeast aren’t the only pantry products flying off supermarket shelves.
The packaged pork product that is Spam has never been more popular.
In a web interview in late March, Jim Snee, CEO of Austin, Minn.-based Hormel, which introduced Spam to the world in 1937, said that the supermarket staple has enjoyed five consecutive years of record sales. Another is forecast for 2020.
“I think that the significant uptick that we’re seeing through this crisis puts us well on our way,” he said. “It’s over an 80-year-old brand, and it’s more relevant today than it’s ever been.”
Yes, Spam, which Hormel produces in Austin as well as in plants in Iowa and Nebraska, is flying off the shelves, with good reason: It’s canned comfort food, a porky, briny balm during a time of anxiety.
“There’s such a tradition to this brand and a love for this brand,” said Brian Lillis, a senior Hormel brand manager. “It’s a brand that gets passed from generation to generation, but we’re also excited that we’re getting more people to try it.”
It’s also affordable. A 12-oz. container of the precooked luncheon meat runs about $3.75.
Granted, Spam isn’t exactly health food, with high levels of sodium — a necessary preservative for a shelf-stable product — and saturated fat.
Still, the formula is simple, featuring a handful of ingredients: ground pork shoulder mixed with ground ham, plus water, sugar, potato starch, salt and sodium nitrate.
Spam is truly Minnesota’s global ambassador. Consumers grew accustomed to it during World War II, when 100 million cans of Spam were shipped worldwide.
It’s currently available in 44 countries, and Hormel measures sales by the billions of units. By 2012, the company had sold more than 8 billion cans of Spam. Fun fact: If all those cans were stacked end to end, they would circle the Earth’s circumference 19 times.
There are now 16 varieties of Spam, from “lite” and lower-sodium versions to novelties flavored with jalapeño, teriyaki and garlic. Last fall, Hormel even went the limited-edition route and took Spam into the Starbucks-generated land of pumpkin spice.
“We’ve been creating different forms of Spam products for a number of decades,” said Lillis. “It’s fun watching the favorites that resonate well with our consumers.”
Over the years, Spam has also enjoyed popular culture fame.
The most famous incidence comes courtesy of a 1970 sketch on the British comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (it’s also the root of the use of the word “spam” as unwanted e-mail), which eventually culminated in the troupe’s 2005 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Spamalot.”
Hormel also operates a Spam museum (aka, the “Guggenham”) in Austin, which is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For those seeking to tiptoe beyond Spamburgers or Spam and eggs, Hormel’s website offers dozens of Spam-related recipes.
The most popular is Spam fried rice, followed by various takes on musubi, the classic Hawaiian delicacy that involves grilled Spam, rice and nori. Spam is big business in Hawaii, where the state’s residents consume 7 million cans of the pink stuff every year.
When it comes to the Spam-uninitiated — let’s face it, for some it’s an acquired taste — here’s a tip: Start small. Use it in a recipe that treats Spam as a supporting player rather than placing it in a starring role.
Think of it this way: if a recipe calls for ham, then it might be successful with Spam. Scalloped potatoes. Strata. Pizza. And definitely fried rice.