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When Only Slabs of Pink, Jellied Byproduct Will Do

October 15, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Stroll into an expensive department store and walk straight past the $180 watermelon with a ribbon twirled just so around its stem. Don't bother with the tea in a butterfly-shaped tin for $153, or with the gift boxes of Belgian chocolates or French cheeses.

If you're looking for a gift that bespeaks elegance and taste, you might try Spam. The luncheon meat might be the subject of satire back home in the U.S., but in South Korea, it is positively classy. With $136 million in sales, South Korea is the largest market in the world for Spam outside the United States. But here, some consider the pink luncheon meat with its gelatinous shell too nice to buy for themselves, and 40% of the Spam is purchased as gifts.

Especially during the holidays, you can see the blue-and-yellow cans neatly stacked in the aisles of the better stores. South Koreans are nearly as passionate about packaging as the Japanese are, and the Spam often comes wrapped in boxed sets. A set of 12 cans costs $44.

"Spam really is a luxury item," said Han Geun Rae, 43, an impeccably dressed fashion buyer who was loading gift boxes of Spam into a cart at the Shinsegae department store before the recent Chusok holiday.

Chusok is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, and the biggest gift-giving occasion of the year here. On this holiday alone, Korean distributor CJ Corp. estimates, 8 million cans of Spam change hands.

Han's intended recipients were her employees, among them a young single man and a married woman with children. "Everybody loves it," Han said. "It is so easy and convenient."

She was expecting to get her own complement of Spam as well -- in previous Chusok seasons, about a third of gifts she received were food sets that contained at least one can of Spam. "My children are in high school and they love it," she said. "I cook it in jjigae stew with kimchi.

"It goes very nicely with red wine," said another shopper, 44-year-old Kim Hwa Yeon, a stockbroker in a crisp navy blue suit and pearls, who said she was buying for clients.

Spam's success in South Korea is one of those cultural mysteries -- a bit like the reverence for Jerry Lewis in France -- where an image is improved in translation. South Koreans take their Spam quite seriously and seem mystified as to why it is a subject of parody among Americans.

"I can't understand what is funny about Spam," said Jeon Pyoung Soo, a CJ Corp. executive who is brand manager here for Spam.

Jeon recalled a recent visit to Austin, Minn., where Spam's manufacturer, Hormel Foods Corp., has created a museum devoted to the history and cult of Spam. Highlights include a 1970 Monty Python skit in which a group of Vikings drowns out all other conversation with a chorus of "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam." (The skit is credited with the word "spam" coming into use to mean unsolicited e-mails that likewise clog a computer's inbox.)

"Everybody was laughing and smiling but me," said the 27-year-old Jeon, who went to business school in the United States and is fluent in English. "I knew all the words, but I didn't get the joke."

Not coincidentally, Spam is also popular in Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa, Guam and Saipan, all places with a history of a U.S. military presence. The "Miracle Meat in a Can," as it was touted after its launch in 1937, was a staple of the GI diet during World War II and the 1950-53 Korean War.

Until 1987, South Koreans had to buy black-market cans of Spam that had been diverted from U.S. military bases. Then CJ Corp. bought the rights from Hormel and began producing its own version at a factory south of Seoul.

In the postwar years, Spam was a special treat for South Koreans, who could rarely afford meat and didn't have refrigeration at home. It is harder to explain its cachet today in the world's 11th-largest economy, where there is no shortage of fresh meat and things associated with the U.S. military are considered low class.

Moreover, other American brands haven't done well here, perhaps because South Koreans have a strong attachment to their own cuisine, as is evident to anyone who has seen them carrying their own stocks of kimchi while traveling abroad.

"There are so many cases where foreign brands have failed. Kellogg's cereals, for example. It was not possible to pass on American breakfast tastes to Koreans," said Kim Tai Joon, the head of the processed-meat division of CJ Corp. "But we have adapted Spam to the Korean food culture to the point that people think of it as a Korean food."

The South Korean version of Spam has less salt than the American recipe, and somewhat different spices. Koreans don't eat it in sandwiches like Americans do, but rather fried with rice or in a soup or stew. Sometimes it is rolled into kimbab, the Korean version of sushi.

"It is easy for old people and children to chew," said Choi Hyun Ju, a 28-year-old sales clerk who was wearing a red miniskirt and high white boots to promote Spam at the Shinsegae store, when asked to explain Spam's popularity.

Back in Minnesota, even some Hormel executives find it difficult to explain why their product is so admired abroad.

"It is a curious thing about Spam that in the Far East, it is taken very seriously, while in the United States, particularly on college campuses, it has this quirky, kitschy retro feel to it," said Julie Craven, public relations manager for Hormel.

Long ago, the company decided that since it couldn't elevate Spam's image at home, it might as well embrace its cult status. The company runs a Spam fan club, sells products ranging from Spam pajamas to books such as "The 100 Best Spam Jokes," and has released collector's-edition cans to mark last year's opening of the Broadway musical "Spamalot," which lampoons both the meat product and the Monty Python movies.

"When it comes to Spam," Craven said, "we get the joke."

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