Columns

2010.06.30 Forget eating Spam, and I'm not sure about Jello, either

on . Posted in Nowhere Road

By RICH FOLEY

It’s amazing what you can come across when checking the book inventory at a large garage sale. I recently spotted a book called “I’m A Spam Fan” by Carolyn Wyman. Not being a Spam fan at all, I would have passed the tome by, but noticed several other familiar products pictured on the cover as well.

Finding that the book contained the history of over 100 famous food products, I bought it and have been fascinated by many of the stories within. Even the one about Spam.

Back in 1927, the Hormel company found itself with an abundance of pork shoulder that no one knew what to do with. An executive suggested chopping it up, mixing it with some ham and spices, then canning it surrounded by clear gelatin so it would keep indefinitely. You can almost guess what happened next.

The military, always interested in long-lasting foods, bought millions of cans and later sent them around the planet during World War II. The book states that in his autobiography, Nikita Khruschev gave American shipments of Spam credit for saving a starving Soviet army during the war. I might add that relations between the two nations have been bumpy ever since.

On a related subject, let’s move from the gelatin-covered Spam to Jello. I’ve always known that somehow bones were involved in its manufacture, but the book makes it stomach-turning clear: “Jello is basically the glutinous material from animal bone, skin and connective tissue combined with colored and flavored sugar. The only difference between gelatin such as Jello and glue is their degree of purity.” Excuse me, I need a short break...

OK, I’m feeling better now. I might not eat the product again for a long, long time, but I got a kick out of how the early owners of the company wanted to give up. Pearl Wait, who invented Jello in 1897, was disappointed with early sales and sold the company to neighbor Orator Woodward for $450.

Woodward had no better luck at first, and at one point, offered to sell the whole company, including a storage facility full of unsold Jello, to plant superintendent A. S. Nico for a mere $35. Nico passed. Soon the product caught on, and by 1902, sales had reached $250,000 per year. Woodward’s son took over the company and within a few more years, sales were $1 million a year and climbing. I can only guess what Nico and his family were thinking at this point.

Another one who gave up for a pittance what would become a multi-million dollar company was the inventor of Fritos. Referred to in the book only as “a Mexican,” he was running a small business making and selling corn chips in the San Antonio, Texas, area.

Wanting to return home, he sold the Fritos name, recipe, manufacturing equipment and list of store accounts he had developed to ice cream maker Elmer Doolin for $100 in 1932. Doolin’s mother hocked her wedding ring to get the money. Doolin was able to adjust the equipment to increase production, which enabled him to expand his sales routes. By 1945, potato chip maker Herman Lay agreed to distribute Doolin’s product, and in 1961, the two companies merged.

Some of the stories about various candy brands are interesting, too. The book states that many people think the Baby Ruth candy bar was named after baseball legend Babe Ruth. But it was really named after President Grover Cleveland’s daughter, who died at age 12 in 1904 and in her younger years was often called America’s “Baby.” In fact, when Babe Ruth tried to lend his name to a new product called Babe Ruth’s Home Run Candy in 1930, the makers of Baby Ruth were successful in legally stopping him from using his own name.

Before the invention of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, the Reese company’s most successful product was a molasses and coconut candy called Lizzie Bars. That was successful for them? I wonder what else they were making.

At first, Reese packaged the cups in five pound boxes which they sold to other companies making candy assortment boxes. That’s why the individual packages still feature the cups in that brown accordion-like paper.

And a little more presidential trivia: Teddy Roosevelt, while staying in Nashville in 1907, was asked if he’d like another cup of Maxwell House Coffee. He replied, “Delighted! It’s good to the last drop!” Soon after, the company was using Teddy’s compliment as a slogan. What do you suppose he might have said about Spam?

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