Hawaii’s historic ham

LIHUE — It’s a staple some say is as American as apple pie.

President Barack Obama even ordered it while on vacation in Honolulu.

But visitors are often caught off guard when they see Spam products lining the pantries of homes and overflowing on the shelves of supermarkets. Palm trees, beaches, it’s often a surprise that Spam has been ingrained in the state’s culture since World War II. 

“I had it as a kid growing up in New Jersey. It wasn’t bad, but I was a kid,” said Harry Millwater, visiting from his home in San Antonio, who wasn’t wild about the idea of ordering it while on vacation. “It looks too obviously processed.”

He tried to introduce the canned luncheon meat to his young son Brad Millwater, who declined the offer.

“It looked like a weird type of meat, it looked like sausage,” Brad said. It didn’t look good.”

But it’s a traditional food in Hawaii for a number or reasons. It’s tasty, some say, it goes with a variety of things and it’s simple to prepare.

“Practically everything goes with it, as long as you don’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol,” said Kevin Kaneshiro, who was born and raised on Kauai. “I’ve been eating it all my life. I cook it up with vegetables.”

It goes with rice, too.

What did the president order on his vacation? Sources on several websites, like the Huffington Post, say it was Spam musabi while he was out golfing.

But as far as being nutritious, well, some people, including experts, definitely wouldn’t classify it as healthy.

“It’s salty,” said Lorna Navarro of Lihue. “I fried it. If you eat it, you’re gonna get high blood pressure.”

Kauai P.E. teacher Nouveau Naumu said his students eat it as a snack. Spam, short for spiced ham, fills the young athletes up.

“It’s not necessarily healthy,” Naumu said. “But every once in a while you need to indulge.”

Seven million cans are shipped to the Hawaiian islands each year. According to Hormel, the manufacturer that makes Spam, Hawaii has the highest percentage of Spam eaters in the country. 

But again, moderation is key.

“It has 30 percent of the daily allowed sodium and less than 3 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals,” said Leslie Pelletier, a Kauai chiropractor who specializes in nutrition.  “The saturated fat is 25 percent, that’s the one we try to keep at a minimum. And then there are the nitrates. Preservatives are something we should try to avoid.”

Specifically, Pelletier is concerned about the ratio of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids in Spam and other foods with an unbalanced ratio. The imbalance can cause high levels of inflammation in the body which can potentially lead to stroke, cardiac problems, digestive issues and auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. 

“If you use Spam in your diet, balance out the Omega ratio by adding fish oil or supplement the recipe with a fatty fish or flax seed oil, things that are high in Omega-3s,” Pelletier said. 

Still, she said there were positive things to say about it: It’s versatile and has a long shelf life.

“It’s very inexpensive and good for camping,” she added. “It has a strong cultural connection.” 

Introduced to the world in 1937, Spam became popular during World War II, according to the manufacturer.  

”With Allied Forces fighting to liberate Europe, Hormel Foods provided 15 million cans of food to troops each week. Spam immediately became a constant part of soldiers’ diets, and earned much praise for feeding the starving British and Soviet armies as well as civilians,” said Nicole Behne, marketing director of grocery products/Spam brand.

Hawaii, naturally, plays home base to the military and has a deep connection to the Second World War. Army officers were said to have dubbed it, “Special Army meat.” Today, Hormel offers 15 flavors of Spam and is shipped to 45 countries.

As far as mixing it with healthier ingredients to balance it out, that’s exactly what Ray Domingo of Hanamaulu often does when he cooks with it.

In a recipe he refers to as, “Spam with a Filipino flair,” he includes olive oil, diced fish cake and oyster sauce with Agave. His pantry is always stocked with a regular supply of Spam. 

“It’s a family tradition. I use it in many dishes, SpamPancit, baked Spam with lemon sauce, Spam with pineapple and pimentos, pork and beans with Spam and hot dogs. My grandkids love it,” Domingo said.

On Kauai, Domingo’s family, who worked on the plantations, used Spam as a regular staple for as long as he can remember. They would eat it, he said after returning from a hard day in the fields.

“Spam goes a long way. Money wasn’t there but we used other things to supplement the vegetables we grew, the animals we raised,” said the 75-year-old Domingo. “Spam will always be there.”


Lisa Ann Capozzi, a features and education reporter can be reached at lcapozzi@thegardenisland.com.


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