How Spam (the Food) Works

Tin of spam
Tin of Spam
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski

Spam is simply processed and cooked pork shoulder and ham preserved in a can. Yet this quintessential American product has inspired both obsession and revulsion (not to mention singing Vikings) ever since the Great Depression. How did Spam become one of the most recognizable brand names in history? What makes it so compelling? In this article, we'll learn all about it.

Spam comes in a rectangular metal can, which allows it to stay fresh, even unrefrigerated, for a very long time. It's a pinkish brick of meat, soft and easily sliceable, that's surrounded by clear gelatin. Because Spam comes precooked, it can be eaten cold directly out of the can, although most people find it more appetizing if it's been cooked or heated. It usually comes in a 12-ounce can, although a 7-ounce can is available.


Spam may be the butt of many jokes, but there's no mystery about where the meat comes from. It's all pork shoulder and ham. Ham comes from the pig's hind legs and rear end. A relatively large amount of salt is added for flavor and to preserve the meat, along with some sugar for flavoring. The only other ingredients are water and a small amount of sodium nitrite, a chemical used to preserve color and prevent the growth of bacteria, specifically Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism.

Next we'll learn how Spam is made.­