I Went to the World's Biggest Spam Festival
Like durian or cheddar cheese on apple pie, Spam is a polarizing food. But it’s huge in Hawaii, making it an obvious place to host the biggest Spam party on the planet.
Festival season is in full swing, or so says my jort-filled social media feeds. While you won't normally find me sweating through billowy Coachella garb on some lawn in the middle of nowhere, you're right to assume I'd make an exception for the right headliner. That headliner is canned meat.
The Waikiki Spam Jam is the world's largest celebration of Hormel's processed pork slab. Like durian or cheddar cheese on apple pie, Spam is a polarizing food that's usually either loved or loathed. It's huge in Hawaii, making it an obvious place to host the biggest Spam party on the planet.
On the morning of Spam Jam 2k17, rain clouds hovered over Honolulu. A little gloom was not going to stop me and the other meat hounds from flocking to the street festival. From my balcony at the Outrigger Waikiki, I watched vendors set up their stations under white tents along Kalakaua Avenue. Down in the lobby, guests flocked to tables selling Spam Jam paraphernalia like T-shirts, tote bags, and stuffed animals shaped like Spam musubi.
Last year, Spam Jam attracted about 25,000 attendees. Those attendees are not all local. Spam Jammers travel far and wide for the occasion, like UK natives Mark and Anne "I Love Spam" Benson. In 2016, Mark made his love for the canned meat official by legally changing his middle name to "I Love Spam."
"I got the permission of the Queen, the Queen said yes," Mark told me. "All of my documents now, passport, everything says that."
Mark's passion for Spam goes back to his childhood.
"When I was a young boy, my granddad used to write letters home from the war saying he swapped rations with the Americans and he used to bring [Spam] home," Mark said. "When he left the war, he went to work in the factory and one of the things they made was Spam. It's always been in the cupboards since I was a boy."
When he and Anne started dating, he introduced her to the meat and the couple have been eating it together three to four times a week ever since. Their favorite way to enjoy it is in a Spam carbonara.
Anne knew that it was Mark's dream to visit the Spam museum in the United States, but flying from Liverpool to Minnesota was costly. She secretly reached out to Hormel and revealed on Valentine's Day that the couple would be married at the museum, courtesy of the company. A week later, Hormel sent them to Waikiki for a Spam Jam honeymoon.
"Hormel just did everything for us, it's a dream come true," Mark said.
With the Spam Jam in full swing, I walked alongside the row of tents and jammed Spam into my mouth. It felt good knowing I was being a magnanimous glutton. All proceeds from the Jam would be donated to the Hawaii Foodbank and local charities.
The festival had Spam in ways you'd expect, like Spam musubi and Spam fried rice, and ways you most certainly would not expect, like baked on pizza and fried in mac and cheese bites. One chef had incorporated Spam into a beef ball for pho. Another made Spam takoyaki.
"We made our own Spam today, treated it just like corned beef," said Eating House 1849 chef Michael Leslie. He was making a Spam version of a reuben sandwich served on a caraway seed-infused taro roll. On the side, Spam potato salad.
"The trick I like at home is to make it really crispy so it's like bacon," he told me.
Spam Jammers were entertained by hula dancers and ukulele music. Local beauty queens posed for pictures. I watched Bobbi Helga stop for a photo op on a faux catamaran perched on a wave of Spam cans. She's originally from Laguna Beach, California, and now calls Oahu home.
"I grew up with Spam," she told me. "I love it. Two of my sisters do not like it."
Her friends vary in Spam enthusiasm as well. The ones who are down make the pilgrimage to Waikiki annually.
"Absolutely people come to town for it," Bobbi said. "They come every year just for Spam Jam. I met them 12 years ago."
The rain picked up in the late afternoon, but let up in the evening. Glowing tiki torches lined road as Spam fans swooped on Spam burgers, Spam katsu, Spam manapua. By 9 PM, I had eaten more Spam than perhaps a person should in a lifetime. I bought a bag of Spam dipped in chocolate and threw it in my new Spam purse to take back to the mainland. My friends would either love it or hate it.