SPAM®: Salty and simple, and stretches a lot

This post was authored by Alissa Bernstein, a medical anthropologist who is studying in our one-year Interdisciplinary MPH program and who is a Spring 2014 Eat.Think.Design. student. She created this narrative as a part of our most recent out-of-class assignment. Students blindly selected one of five food prompts and were asked to interview a stranger about that prompt. The five prompts were: kale, marshmallow, SPAM, Sriracha, and taco.

SPAM at Faletti FoodsWhat would it take for a meat counter in an upscale grocery store that carries local, organic, hormone-free meats to put Spam amongst their plump and perfectly cut filets? After doing some background research on the Spam website about the history of Spam and the different forms and flavors of Spam that exist, I designed a short set of questions aimed at butchers and people who work at meat counters. I first walked into Falletti Foods, an upscale market in the Lower Haight neighborhood, and went straight to the canned food isle.  I was not sure whether I would find what I was looking for, but was not as surprised that the Spam they did have was low sodium. I grabbed the can, thinking that having the physical form in hand would be a good way to start the conversation, and approached the meat counter. I explained my project to the young baseball cap-wearing butcher who immediately said he did not have time for the interview and that I should go to BiRite, the nearby grocery store, and ask them. I held up the can of Spam like a saleslady and pushed a little more, “Well how about just a few quick questions?” I asked. “That’s cheap meat,” he said, “it has no place in my meat counter because of the ingredients”. We chatted back and forth a bit. He had never tried Spam, and said they would probably never carry it at his counter because it is cheap, unhealthy, and “ethnic”. I asked him to clarify what he meant by ethnic, and he said that Filipinos like to eat it, creating a direct racially-based association with the food, which also designated a kind of racial boundary around his meat counter and who he thinks he serves. When I pushed him to consider a scenario in which he would allow Spam to enter his precious selection, he sighed, maybe a little irritated, and suggested, “Maybe if they make it organic or something, or add nutritional value to it, like they add to a lot of stuff these days”. He did not seem convinced by this, and seemed relieved when the interview was over (after I snapped his picture, where he balanced the Spam on top of two bottles of fancy meat seasoning, not even seeming to want to hold the can) .

I shuttled off to my next stop, BiRite, down the street. BiRite did not even have Spam in their canned food selection, so I went up to the fancy local-organic-hormone-free-grass-fed meat counter (all of these displayed in a parade of catchy words), and asked whether I could interview the butcher. At first she exclaimed, , “Spam? We don’t sell that here!” But then she said she would do the interview in a few minutes. In the meantime, a customer who overheard the conversation pitched in, telling me that Spam is a low-income food that does not appeal to him, but neither do other deli meats, he added. He suggested I do my interview at the corner store, or Costco, where they have spam “this big” (he showed me the size of the can with his hands.

SPAM at Bi-RiteThe butcher, a tall African American woman with a big smile, was finally ready for the interview, which she responded to from behind the meat counter. Expecting something similar to the Falletti’s butcher due to her first reaction, I cautiously asked her my first questions: What comes to mind when you think about Spam, and what associations do you have with it?” And…she smiled! Her eyes lit up as she told me about growing up eating Spam, enthusiastically reminiscing that it is “salty and simple, and stretches a lot”. I asked her what she meant by “stretches a lot” and she said that for people who do not have a lot of money, one can of Spam can go a long way for a little money, and that she ate it at least once a week growing up, and still prepares it at home. She threw out a few of her favorite recipes: Spam and eggs, Spam with rice, “It tastes good!” However, when I asked about whether she would carry it at the meat counter, she said that people here are looking for healthy food, and plus, it has too much sodium and is not local. I asked her whether she would consider carrying a locally-produced, organic, low-sodium Spam, and she agreed that would work, but only if people had a recipe to go with the Spam. She suggested that if people did not know what recipes to use with Spam they would not ask for it, but maybe if they had recipes to go with this imagined local-organic Spam they might want to see it at the meat counter at BiRite. When I asked to take her picture after we chatted some more, she smiled for the picture and shook my hand. We both agreed that Spam is pretty good and that more people could learn to appreciate it.

So. I was not necessarily surprised by the responses I got about what it would take for meat counters at fancy grocery stores to carry Spam. What was fascinating about this process was the vast difference in responses I got due to one person’s emotional connection to the food and another person’s race-related associations with the food. In regards to the background readings on interviews, I definitely chose to begin with some “softball” questions about associations with Spam and familiarity, before jumping into the marketing questions- I aimed at some “feelings” questions to see that first reaction people have to the idea of Spam. While I went in with some set interview questions, I found myself going off script and getting into a more unstructured, conversational mode, while taking notes and noting things like body movements, discomfort, or emotion when I could.

JaspalSPAM®: Salty and simple, and stretches a lot