The Origin of SPAM (The Food) & Spam (The Email)

iStock
iStock

SPAM (The Food Item)

First, let's get the ingredients out of the way. SPAM is chopped pork shoulder meat with ham, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrite. Unless, that is, it's SPAM Lite, in which case there's also some chicken thrown in there. Or SPAM Oven Roasted Turkey, which includes (we assume) turkey and is suitable for Muslims.

SPAM was invented in the late-Depression era, in 1937, which may explain at least some of why it seemed like a good idea: people were desperate. According to Nikita Khrushchev's book, Khrushchev Remembers, SPAM was a godsend for another hungry group—Russian soldiers in World War II. For a further illustration of how bad things were, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—who we really, really can't imagine eating SPAM—reportedly once referred to it as a "wartime delicacy."

And what does "SPAM"—sorry, we have to capitalize it that way, Hormel says so—actually stand for? Despite convincing evidence, it doesn't stand for "something posing as meat." The company's official explanation is that it's short for "spiced ham," but that wasn't always its party line. Hormel has also stated in the past that the name stands for "shoulder of pork and ham," although we can sort of understand why it wouldn't necessarily want to drive home the whole "shoulder" thing today. The name was suggested by Kenneth Daigneau, an actor who received the $100 prize in a contest Hormel had sponsored. Conveniently, he just happened to be the brother of a Hormel vice president. We think there's just a little too much mystery in this mystery meat. Then again, SPAM has sold over 6 billion cans, and what have we done lately?

SPAM (The Email Genre)

If you're sick of blaming dethroned Nigerian kings, triple-X porn sites and mail-order purveyors of Viagra for all the junk in your e-mail box, why not take issue with the real rascals behind the word.

In 1970, the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus came up with one of their most beloved and inadvertently prescient sketches, in which a customer in a restaurant desperately tries to order something that doesn't contain SPAM, only to find that pretty much everything on the menu features it. In the course of his ill-fated dinner, a nearby party of Vikings—hey, we did say it was Monty Python—breaks into song: "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, lovely SPAM! Wonderful SPAM!" Clearly, repetition is funny. Also, and more relevant for the relationship between SPAM and email, repetition is annoying.

Apparently, the first people to make the connection between repetitive SPAM and repetitive email were enormous geeks, by which we mean to say they were players in "multi-user dungeons," or very early predecessors of games like World of Warcraft. Brad Templeton, who has done meticulous research on the topic, writes: "The term spamming got used to apply to a few different behaviors. One was to flood the computer with too much data to crash it. Another was to "˜spam the database' by having a program create a huge number of objects, rather then creating them by hand. And the term was sometimes used to mean simply flooding a chat session with a bunch of text inserted by a program (commonly called a "˜bot' today) or just by inserting a file instead of your own real time typing output. When the ability to input a whole file to the chat system was implemented, people would annoy others by dumping the words to the Monty Python SPAM Song. Another report describes indirectly a person simply typing "spam, spam...' in a Multi User Domain with a keyboard macro until being thrown off around 1985."

Early spam consisted of mass invitations to parties, broad anti-war messages ("THERE IS NO WAY TO PEACE. PEACE IS THE WAY"), and appeals for college tuition funding. The classic "MAKE MONEY FAST" appeared as a USENET post in the '80s, Templeton says, but as a one-off, not a constant barrage of email. Then, in 1994, USENET users were warned of a "Global Alert for All: Jesus is Coming Soon" in every single newsgroup. Until then spam had at least been somewhat avoidable. What a quaint era that was.

This piece was excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything.

The Reason White Castle Slider Burgers Have Five Holes

White Castle
White Castle

While it’s not often mentioned in conversations about the best fast food burger on the menu alongside staples like Shake Shack or In-N-Out, the White Castle slider burger still holds a special place in the stomachs of those who enjoy their bite-sized convenience. In 2014, TIME even named the slider the most influential burger of all time, with its debut in 1921 helping begin our nation’s obsession with fast-service burgers.

Peel the bun off a White Castle burger and you’ll find the square meat patty has exactly five holes. Why? Thrillist writer Wil Fulton went looking for an answer to this gastronomic mystery. It turns out that the holes serve a very functional purpose.

In 1954, a Cincinnati-based White Castle employee named Earl Howell stuffed his location’s suggestion box with a note that said the patties might cook more quickly if they were pierced. The reason? The franchise steams its burgers on the grill, and the holes allow the steam to better penetrate the stacks of patties (usually 30 burgers tall) that are piled on the grill at one time. No one has to flip the burgers, and they wind up coming out of the kitchen faster. The steam also picks up the flavor of the onion acting as a bottom layer, allowing it to spread through the stack.

Howell’s idea soon spread from Ohio to White Castle restaurants nationwide. The company facilitates the creation of the holes by puncturing a “meat log” and then slicing it and sending the patties to locations.

If you enjoy their distinctive flavor, the holes have a lot to do with it. Enjoy.

[h/t Thrillist]

Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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