Of Spam and Velveeta

If I had to point at one area of the food media world that illustrates my point regarding its elitism and deafness against common food, I would cast my finger in the way of those two veritable juggernauts of the corporate food world – Spam and Velveeta.

Each of these foods is a key ingredient in a regional American cuisine (Spam in Hawaiian food, and Velveeta in Tex-Mex). Without them, said cuisines would look vastly different and would result in something markedly different. Yet if one were to take a sampling of various food writers and editors, both of these products would not fare particularly well, either being, at best, dismissed, and, at worst, used as an example of the ineffectiveness of corporations to produce food of substance.

Let’s address the last argument for a moment. Can corporations produce foods of substance, of quality? Both terms – substance and quality – are subjective terms, so let’s open it up to subjective answers. In my own life, I’ve enjoyed everything from Oreos and Snickers bars, to Thai chili paste and canned tomatoes, each produced by a company incorporated somewhere in the world. Many of these companies sell from tens of thousands to millions of consumers. At some point in those numbers, I have to acknowledge that not all of that is marketing. At some point, people are buying these products because they like the stuff, regardless of whether it’s a jar of mayonnaise to a loaf of cheese substitute. And while I can’t stand some of the stuff being purchased out there in bulk (i.e. Kraft Singles), I cannot make the leap to say that my taste in food is superior to anyone else’s. Different? Yes. Better? Ehhhhhhh…

So if we can agree that there is some measure of value in the mass produced food out there, why do many of us dismiss it? Is it because it is less healthy? Mmm. There are many “high-end” foods that have their own health issues (I’m looking at you, cheese and charcuterie). Is it because its often produced in less than ethical ways? In some instances, yes. But really? Are we that concerned with how Velveeta is made?

What I think the issue comes down to is a combination ubiquity, lack of cost, and the fact that its produced by a corporation. We food folk love our food to be new and exotic. Often we equate a food’s “exoticness” with its rarity. If there were such a thing as artisinal cheese loaf, or hand made canned ham, these products would look a bit different to us.

But there’s not. If there’s one thing that Spam and Velveeta ain’t is exotic. We can literally walk into any grocery store in the United States, and be assured of finding both, for a cost less than a ticket to a movie. This ubiquity makes it easy for us to think “Velveeta? Feh. Spam? Disgusting!”

The question for me is now, “Should we disregard foods simply because of their ubiquity?” Of course not. Even less so for foods, such as Spam and Velveeta, that define specific cuisines.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying you need to like the taste of Spam or Velveeta. What I am saying is don’t disregard the importance and value of these foods to groups of people who use and (presumably) like the stuff. Hawaiian Cuisine and Tex-Mex have an inherent value to our American culture. It’s important to recognize both the cuisines, and aspects of the cuisines that make them possible.