Honolulu holds 13th annual homage to Spam

Tens of thousands of locals and tourists rubbed (pork) shoulders (and ham) and smacked their lips along Kalakaua Avenue in the Waikiki area of Honolulu May 2 at the annual festival celebrating the canned luncheon meat that has become a near-staple in the Hawaiian diet.

The 13th Annual SPAM JAM® brought visitors from all over the islands and drew in many a tourist who had come here for the surf, sand and sun but never expected to add a fourth “S” to that list.

Since the first Spam Jam was held in 2002, the festival has grown nearly as quickly as the varieties of Spam itself have increased. Introduced to the islands during World War II, it has become ubiquitous in the Hawaiian diet, having become more popular with Hawaiians than with virtually any other group. According to Hormel’s Spam brand manager Jen Nolander, Hawaiians eat about six million cans of Spam each year, which works out to around five cans per person. Only Guamanians eat more, she said.

Spam dishes include Spam Lau Lau, Spam and Ahi Katsu, and Spam Manapua

Some 16 local establishments from local restaurants to national chains to the ubiquitous ABC Stores created or recreated unique dishes featuring Spam as their featured ingredient. Comestibles ranged from Spam Mac & Cheese balls produced by the local Hard Rock Café to award-winning entries including Spam Reuben Roll-ups produced by the Hula Grill to ice cream bars containing candied Spam brittle and macadamia nuts made by Ono Pops.

Among the award winners was a Spicy Spam Rice Ball created by Quinn Deaton, a local high school sophomore, and produced for the event according to Quinn’s recipe by Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant. Quinn told TheTravelPro that his recipe grew out of the need to earn some money. During a summer visit with his aunt, he developed the recipe in an attempt to win $150 in prize money in a recipe contest at the San Diego County Fair.

“I just combined my favorite things: bacon combined with Spam and rice and spices,” he said. It doesn’t hurt that the man he calls Uncle Joey owns The Chart House restaurant in Waikiki, so he’s “always been around cooking.”

One of the facets of the various Spam creations I found the most fascinating was that, in most cases, you would never guess you’re eating Spam. The Spam-based ice cream bar, for example, provided an excellent sweet/salt contrast along with the crunch of macadamia nuts, but virtually no hint of Spam’s meaty notes unless one isolated a chunk of the candied Spam and tasted it on its own.

The dish I found the most intriguing of all: Spam and fresh ahi katsu with wasabi curry and fresh mango salsa offered by Chai's Waikiki. In the following video, Chef Chai shares his inspiration for that delicious dish.

Spam's popularity in the islands is what drove Bitsy Kelley, an executive with Outrigger Enterprises Group, to come up with the first Spam Jam in 2002.

“I was really jealous of [Spam] festivals on the Mainland when we here in Hawaii ate more Spam than anywhere else, and I wanted to see the festival held here,” she told me. The annual event is presented by Outrigger Resorts, one of a portfolio of hotel, beachfront resort, condominium and vacation resort properties operated by Outrigger Enterprises Group. The group is one of the event's founding sponsors.

Could this be called a 'Spam dog'?

Locals get into Spam Jam in a big way, donning Spam-themed attire and, in some cases, even dressing up and parading their pets at the festival.

And while it was definitely fun, Spam's manufacturer, Hormel, was there to do business. It chose this year's Spam Jam as the place to unveil two new products.

Those include a new variety of Spam seasoned to taste like linguicia, the Portuguese sausage that is very popular in Hawaii. Unfortunately for those who know and love linguicia, that particular version of Spam will only be distributed in Hawaii.

Sample packet of Spam Snacks

The other new Spam product, however, is set to debut in the fall and will be available nation-wide: Spam Snacks. Bite-sized nibbles of Spam, slightly drier than the canned version and similar in texture to processed beef sticks, are designed to “give Spam fans a quick flavor fix of their favorite food,” according to Nolander. I found them to be quite tasty, providing a quick flavor fix, just as Nolander had said. The product was test-marketed with festival goers at Spam Jam, and Hormel will incorporate the feedback it receives into the product’s final incarnation prior to its wider release.

For a good cause

Wacky and wild as it can be, Spam Jam is for a good cause. The beneficiary of the festival is the Hawaii Foodbank, whose representatives were presented with a check for $15,000 from the event. The Hawaii Foodbank is the only agency in the state that collects, warehouses, and distributes large quantities of both perishable and non-perishable food to 250 member agencies as well as food banks on Oahu, Hawaii’s Big Island, Maui, and Kauai.

Presenting a check to the Hawaii Foodbank

Why do they call it that?

There are several versions of how the product got its name but, according to Hormel’s website Spam.com, the significance of Spam as a brand name has long been a subject of speculation.

“One popular belief says it’s derived from the words 'spiced ham',” the website says. “Others suggest it’s an acronym for 'shoulders of pork and ham.' The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives,” though the web site also notes that the product was named by the brother of a Hormel executive in a contest held in 1937, the year the product was introduced. For his contribution, Ken Daigneau won a whopping $100 prize.

Whether you're a Spam fan or just love the islands, make plans now to attend the 14th annual Spam Jam next year.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek
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Outrigger provided me with accommodations at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort so that I could cover Spam Jam.