The Atlas of Eating
Feast on food with Victoria Pope as she explores how geography, history, and culture influence what and how people eat.
Posted Aug 13,2008

When I was working for the Wall Street Journal in Bonn in the early 1980s, my colleague Tom O’Boyle thought about writing a quirky story about Spam, the canned ham. He’d heard that Germans loved the stuff. We were baffled by its popularity in a country where every corner grocery was resplendent with fresh pork products.
      O’Boyle never wrote the story, but since then I have gathered string on the cultural hegemony of Spam. It’s very big: Since its invention in 1937, six billion cans have been sold in 46 countries and Americans alone buy 90 million cans a year.
      I also learned that America sent Spam to help feed the Allied soldiers during World War II. The U.S. government sent all sorts of food, including other canned luncheon meats, but Spam got all the glory, perhaps because the name is both easy to remember and to pronounce. Say it out loud. The word bursts off the tongue in a satisfying explosion of consonants.      
     Nikita Khrushchev mentioned it in his taped reminiscences, published as Khrushchev Remembers. “We had lost our fertile, food-bearing lands,” he said. “Without Spam we wouldn’t have been able to feed our armies.” A grocer’s daughter, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, tongue in cheek and nostalgic at the same time, called Spam a wartime delicacy.
     It is no coincidence that a British comedy troupe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, would crack wise over the ubiquity of Spam. In one famous routine, two guys at a restaurant try to order breakfast from a menu in which the processed meat product is featured in almost every dish. This wildly popular sketch poking fun at Spam overload would lead cyber-neologists to give fresh meaning to the word: the unwelcome barrage of junk mail into individual email accounts.
     As for the Germans, they developed their attachment to Spam when it arrived as humanitarian aid from the U.S. after the war. While not as consequential as the Marshall Plan, Spam is affectionately remembered as a symbol of U.S. beneficence amid de-Nazification. 
   The food historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto calls this phenomenon “Colonial circulation”: the exchange of foods over long distances as the result of empire building, military occupations, and other cultural collisions. “Hunger, of course, or some analogous emergency such as war, can dispose people to accept foods which in other circumstances they might reject as foreign,” he writes in his book Near a Thousand Tables.
     This culinary cross-pollination goes both ways. Gummi Bears are a case in point. The German company Haribo, which first manufactured the gelatin-based candy in the 1920s, credits German teachers in the United States for giving American kids their first taste of the chewy, whimsical sweet. But soldiers and their families living on bases in Germany were also on the front lines, developing a taste for the local confection and taking it stateside as gifts. The candy became popular enough through these informal channels that an American company, Herman Goelitz, began manufacturing Gummi Bears in 1981 and Haribo ramped up the distribution of its Gold-Bears shortly after.
    Now I cannot help but wonder: Did GIs who served in Japan whet America’s new appetite for sushi?

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