A few Halloweens ago, I showed up at a San Francisco street party dressed as a giant can of Spam. That day, I learned what it is to be adored.
I was like the Elvis of processed meat -- strangers actually cheered as I walked by. A guy in a PEZ costume high-fived me shouting "Spam rocks!" at the top of his lungs. We bonded.
But how cool would I have been if I'd come dressed as something like, say, a Powerbar? Can you say "DORK"?
There's just something irresistibly cool about the foods we grew up with. I'm not talking about mom's apple pie here -- I'm talking about what we really ate: Twinkies, Wonder Bread slathered with Miracle Whip, SpaghettiOs and, oh God yes, Spam.
Even if we wouldn't touch these products today with a 10-foot fork (at least not in public), we deify them because they remind us of a simpler time. A time when artificial flavoring was a selling point and "fat-free" didn't exist.
If you don't believe in the processed-food-as-pop-culture-icon theory, just take a look at the Internet. There are more than 140,000 web pages devoted to Spam worship, along with some 6,000 Peeps pages, 2,300 Twinkies sites and 9,000 shrines to Jell-O. And in the non-digital world, there are cookbooks, museums and Monty Python sketches.
Yet we know tragically little about our favorite edible icons. Who among us can name the mastermind behind Hamburger Helper? Or who knows when the first TV dinner was created? Who can tell the story of how Spam got its name? To find the answers to these probing questions, we must journey back 101 years to the dawn of the processed food era.
In the beginning... there was Jell-O...
It's comforting to know that not all that much has changed in 100 years. We began with Jell-O, and that's where our historical journey ends. Hmm... maybe I would have been even more popular if I'd dressed up as a box of Jell-O for Halloween instead of Spam. Or maybe Spam-flavored Jell-O? Hey, there's always next year.
For more tidbits on food history, check out The Food Chronology by James Trager (Henry Holt & Company 1995); a very useful source for this article!
Pop Culture Food Icons on the Web
- Brotherhood of the Mystical Jello: http://www.odyssee.net/~profnut/
- Joys of Jello: http://cascade.mit.edu/cookbook/jello/
- The Unofficial Marshmallow Peep Page: http://www.wam.umd.edu/~ejack/peep.html
- The Spamtastic® Gift Site: http://www.spam.com
- Spam Haiku Archive Homepage: http://pemtropics.mit.edu/~jcho/spam/
- Find-The-Spam: http://www.smalltime.com/nowhere/findthespam/
- John's Shrine to Spam: http://www.iconnect.net/home/jstrong/spam.html
Twinkies (these sites include numerous science experiments involving Twinkies)
- Twinkie Gallery: http://www.jps.net/funnyguy.hive/twinkgal.html
- Twinkies in Space: http://www.megadodo.com/articles/8R17.html
- Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia: http://www.spectrumnet.com/pez
- The Powers of Pez: http://expage.com/page/pezpowers
- Evan's Page O' Pez: http://www.geocities.com/hollywood/lot/5434/pez.html