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Celebrate with Spam: The Construction of Luxury Food Items

“Pass the Spam, please,” are probably not words you will hear at this year’s Thanksgiving table. However, in South Korea, Spam is a luxury item and is considered a very important part of the gift-giving ritual at the lunar Thanksgiving festival. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that Veblen’s theory of the leisure class can help explain why Spam is so popular in some countries.

These are a few of my favorite (Thanksgiving) things: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, green beans, stuffing, cranberry relish, fresh rolls, and turkey! You can’t leave out the turkey. The familiar Thanksgiving Day spread in American society is a near-sacred cornucopia of culinary delights. Although regional variations abound (macaroni and cheese was never included at my family’s holiday dinners, but it seems to be common in the south), severe transgressions are frowned upon (spaghetti or peanut butter sandwiches in place of a turkey? No.). The undisputed star of the patriotic Thanksgiving table is the turkey. Turkey is so symbolic of the season that, when I was a social worker, we spent the month before the holiday collecting and distributing frozen turkeys to needy families so they would not miss out on the right to display a giant turkey on the table in late November. If a family had to substitute something for the turkey, say, a can of Spam, it would speak to the lower social class of the household. Spam is, understandably, not something to be proud of as the family crowds around the harvest table. That is, unless you live in South Korea.

In America, Spam is somewhat of a joke, “polka parodied” by “Weird Al” Yankovic, and once made a spectacular run as the freaky focus for a now-defunct festival to help “Keep Austin Weird” in Austin, TX, in addition to serving as bizarre fair food along with pig toes on a stick.

Spam’s humble beginnings in 1937 spoke to the desperation of Depression-era and World War II rationing. The way my grandparents reminisced about 1940s-era Spam recipes only made me sad, not hungry.

However, the star of South Korea’s Chuseok lunar Thanksgiving festival, held recently in September, is none other than Spam. In fact, Spam is quite the status symbol of South Korea’s Thanksgiving holiday. South Korean stores even sell boxed sets around the lunar holiday.

This BBC article says that Spam is a luxury food item in South Korea. Advertisements feature celebrities, yet another aspect of this canned food “hype” you won’t see in America. A premium Spam gift basket can cost as much as $75. The motto, “If You’ve Got Spam, You’ve Got it All!” would be simply laughable here in America, where Spam is tucked away among other cheap, canned meats and certainly never the star of any meal, much less a holiday.

An excellent “Sociology in Focus” post last summer talked about food products and cultural diffusion, which is pretty applicable here due to the fact that Spam is an American product introduced to South Korea by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War. But what is most interesting is the way Spam has taken on the identity as a luxury item in one country, even as it languishes among Ramen noodles and cheap hot dogs in American culture.

Spam in America most likely tastes very similar to Spam in South Korea, but the way this food is perceived as a concept could not be more different. Over a century ago, economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class. In a nutshell, Veblen suggested that members of the higher class do not base their preferences upon the utilitarian usefulness (or tastiness!) of a product, but instead base preferences upon the individual’s position in the social structure. Higher classes prefer certain products simply because other members in the same class prefer these items. Veblen’s term “conspicuous consumption” describes the way products are bought in order to communicate social status.

I undertook an informal survey among a smattering of my friends with the question, “What do you think about Spam?” Answers didn’t paint a very flattering picture of the canned meat, ranging from “a joke” to “broke food” to simply, “I don’t.” One respondent stated that a can of Spam would make an excellent white elephant gift at an office party.

Thinking about what food products mean in different cultures is an exercise in conceptualizing status symbols and social class. The bigger the turkey on the Thanksgiving table, the better the family’s social standing. I dare you to bring cans of Spam to Grandma’s house this Thanksgiving and see how well it goes over. Meanwhile, wholesalers in South Korea are counting on high sales for next year’s rollout of Spam gift baskets.

UPDATE Nov-20-13

We heard from a number of readers, a specific thanks goes to James Turnball, challenging the analysis of the BBC article. Specifically with the BBC’s claim that Spam is considered a luxury item. It is available to buy in stores in a gift box set, but whether or not it’s a luxury item is another mater entirely. We at SociologyInFocus feel this article still provides an interesting look at the social construction of luxury and how we use consumer goods to celebrate family holidays. However, the main claim that Spam is a luxury item is certainly in question.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Ask your older relatives what they think about Spam and how they view the product.
  2. Read this article about Spam in Hawaii and compare and contrast Spam’s reputation in Hawaii to its reputation in South Korea. How is it similar and how is it different.
  3. Have you ever tried Spam? Why did you eat it and did you like it?
  4. Describe another food item that is highly prized in one country and devalued in another.