An Autobiographical Fantasia, Told via Spam

By Caroline Cao
July 5, 2023

When it comes to Spam, there’s something beyond just ham, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrite. You can store it, don’t have to refrigerate it, dice it into your ramen and fried rice, roll it into kimbap, or make musubi or budae jjigae. Whenever I’m at H-Mart, Hong Kong Supermarket, or Dainobu, my eyes skim the aisles for a can.

In Jaime Sunwoo’s autobiographical fantasia, Specifically Processed American Me, audiences are taken on a playful, free-wheeling journey unpacking how the distinctly American meat product got made into a staple of Asian and Asian diasporic cuisine. Presented by Free Rein Projects and Ping Chong and Company, in one of the play’s first scenes, a paper-mache pig spirit commands a young Korean American girl, played by Sarah Shin, who has yet to unpack her family’s relationship to the infamous canned pork. Originally brought to the Korean peninsula by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War, this military ration was viewed by many Koreans, including Sunwoo’s grandmother, as a practical source of meat at a time when such commodities were considered a luxury.

Emerald-dressed Hormel girls, a chorus of consumerism and caricaturist giggles, shapeshift into American childhood bullies who berate kimbap as “gross poverty food.” They’re employed by Spam’s creator, Jay Hormel, who is played as a patriotic huckster donning a spic-and-span military uniform by Nathaniel Basch-Gould. In real life, Jay Hormel was the head of the Minnesota-based Hormel Foods Corporation founded in the 1930s and active in the American World War II cause.

Opening with the Hormel titan’s sale pitch for Spam, the Hormel girls’ priestess-like worship of Spam, and satiric commercial jingles, Specially Processed American Me illustrates the role of the U.S. empire in introducing the canned pork across Asia-Pacific. Wherever American imperialism flew its planes and rolled its tanks, Spam followed, settling into the diets of starving and terrorized civilians around the world.
Wherever American imperialism flew its planes and rolled its tanks, Spam followed, settling into the diets of starving and terrorized civilians around the world.
What Hormel sells is American Might patriotic mythology. What Sunwoo, born of Korean immigrants, explores is her family history and its intersection with American imperialism (and in doing so, displaying the wrinkles of Hormel’s patriotic image). With her props, puppets, and family photographs at her disposal, Sunwoo and her co-director Karim Muasher keep the piecemeal plot moving as a young Jaime grows from a reluctant investigator to a curious adult grasping the gravity of her family’s history and family separations. The first important turning point in Jaime’s knowledge is marked by a recorded testimony of her grandmother’s survival during the Korean War, synchronized with percussions, shadowplay, and moving backdrops (drawn as a childlike Jaime may have rendered them) that imagine an uncapturable part of memory.

The production utilizes handcrafted props, from the pink putty that represents the infamous “meat goo” that produces Spam to the paper-mache pig (a visual alluding to Korean Shamanic rituals) that pokes its head from a panel made of patched-together Spam labels to interrogate Jaime. The inedible food props designed by Lisa Friedman hint toward a delectable elaboration of the real-deal meal. Meanwhile, the humor in lyricist/composer Matt Chilton’s Hormel girl jingles is countered by a solemn Korean lullaby. This contrasting soundtrack bookends Jaime’s journey with a chorus of Asian American communion.

The show culminates into a pivotal dialogue between Asian American vloggers exchanging their Spam recipes and commentary: the Spam musubi made by incarcerated Japanese Americans, the complex sentiments around imperialism, the active U.S. military bases that still haunt and exploit the Asia-Pacific, and the community between Asian recipe-makers. This penultimate act could spin off as its own play, a concept wandering in the spam-patched tapestry.

While the imperialistic and capitalistic legacy of Spam is here to stay, the play’s finale also insists that Asian and Asian American generations incorporating Spam into their own recipes and making it their own yields a strength and resilience more important than the intended mythology of American might. In Specially Processed American Me, memory never tasted both so salty and sweet.

Caroline Cao is a writer based in New York City.

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