Something has happened to make me understand the depth of America's financial crisis: Sales of Spam are rising.
I'll forego restaurant meals and trips to the mall. Vacations — who needs 'em? I'll squeeze every drop of gasoline from the Camry's tank, and I'll stretch every penny until it hurts.
Just please, please don't let me have to go back to eating Spam.
I lived on the stuff my last couple of years in college, when I didn't have enough money to buy the campus meal plan and, lacking a car, had no regular access to fresh foods from a grocery store. I cooked my own meals in an illegal electric frying pan in my dorm room, and if not for Spam, I might have starved to death.
It was cheap and easily stored. I ate Spam and mustard sandwiches for lunch. I had fried Spam slices for dinner. For a rare gourmet treat, I'd plop a ring of canned pineapple on top of a slab of Spam and decorate it with ketchup.
I ate Spam, too, during a couple of lean years right after college. But with a little more cash in my pocket then, I could afford to get fancy. I'd stud the brick of Spam with whole cloves and bake it in the oven. Or I'd create a glaze by mixing up a little brown sugar and orange juice and pouring it over a fried slice topped with pineapple or thin apple slices.
I felt a sense of kinship with the soldiers of World War II, who were reported to have survived in the trenches by eating a Spam-like canned meat product.
I ate Spam until the very sight or smell of it activated my gag reflex.
And now, it's back, the meat product called upon to feed America in its time of need.
Hormel Foods Corp., which manufactures Spam, recently reported a 14 percent increase in sales during the second quarter of this year. According to the company, all kinds of people — young, old, rich, poor — are buying Spam, to the point that a company official told the Associated Press, "We have significantly increased our household penetration."
Not bad for a product first introduced in 1937, and which has been the subject of much guffawing during years when people didn't have to worry so much about their grocery bills.
Classic Spam hasn't changed much since my college years. It is still made from pork (there is much debate about which part of the pig is used), salt, water, potato starch and sugar, with some preservatives thrown in. It is still a pale pink, and it is still sold in a dense, damp brick in a rectangular can. It is already cooked, but it looks less — well, gelatinous — if it is fried or baked before it is eaten.
However, the Spam product line has expanded a lot in the last 30 years. The company now offers Spam Lite, Spam Turkey, Spam with Bacon, Spam with Cheese, Spam with Garlic, Hot and Spicy Spam, and low-salt Spam. There is even Spam Single, a cooked slice in a 3-ounce pouch which tells the consumer to "throw your head back and think wonderful thoughts of faraway places while you chew." Hormel even suggests making a necklace out of the Spam Single pouch and hanging it around your neck. There's a little drawing to show you how to wear it.
Another thing that has changed about Spam is the hype. The Monty Python musical, Spamalot, helped that along, but the marketing geniuses at Hormel have kicked up the kitsch. The Spam Web site, www.spam.com, showcases Spam music, Spam facts, Spam hats and mugs and shirts, a Spam fan club, and the travel schedule for the Spammobile.
What probably hasn't changed is the way nutritionists blanch when they read the nutrition label on Spam. One 3-ounce package of Spam Single has 250 calories, with 200 of those coming from fat. That single serving contains 34 percent of the daily value for fat and 41 percent of the daily value for salt.
But it also has 11 grams of protein, which is, after all, the reason that people buy Spam. They buy it because they believe it is cheaper than fresh meat, though with Publix selling Spam Classic for about $2.80 for a 12-ounce can, some fresh hamburger and chicken would cost less per pound. People also buy it because it is convenient — already cooked — and easy to store. I kept Spam on the closet shelf in my dorm room. These days, I'm betting people keep it in their pantry for those weeks when the paycheck is gone and the refrigerator is bare.
Spam to the rescue.
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.