Commentary: ‘Spammed’

During Korea’s big holiday, people can’t get enough of the canned meat. 

Story: Joe Angione

When most of us think of spam, we think of the irritating email we receive on our computers. Some of us also might know that Spam is a canned meat sold in our supermarkets. The food item has lost much of its popularity here, but in South Korea, it’s a featured gift given during the nation’s biggest holiday: Chuseok, also known as Korea’s Thanksgiving.

While less than a third of South Koreans are Christians and celebrate Christmas, Chuseok is the official blockbuster holiday of their year. It’s usually celebrated across a four-day period in the second half of September. It’s the time when Koreans return to their ancestral hometowns to celebrate with their families and rejoice in the autumn harvest after a season of hard work. It generates heavy travel, often causing huge traffic jams as millions take to the roads to reach their home provinces outside Seoul.

It might seem strange that Spam probably is the most popular gift to be exchanged between friends and family during Chuseok. The reasons for the Chuseok holiday are to honor ancestors and keep families together in an era when work may separate people most of the year. So, why Spam? It doesn’t seem to fit in with the season.

But Spam holds special significance, harking back to the war years when it was the most available protein food for both American GIs stationed there and for the Korean population. Spam is still revered as a food that kept war-torn Koreans from starving—and they really got to like it.

During Chuseok, Spam is presented in smartly decorated gift sets of the canned product. Some offer Spam in the form of a tasty sandwich spread.

Recently, my wife and I picked up a friend at the airport who was returning from visiting her son in Seoul. She asked me to help her carry a large, flat package she was hauling around in a big shopping bag. Its weight amazed me. She told me it was a gift package of 15 cans of Spam from her son for her and her husband to enjoy during their holidays. He thought it was funny … it was more Spam than they had ever eaten in their lives.

“And we’re not even Korean,” she exclaimed.

They’re still looking for opportunities to regift the meat. Anyone out there like a Spam sandwich?