We sometimes ask, “Whatever happened to so-and so? I never see much of her any more.” I had that feeling recently about some foods I used to eat. They never show up on my grocery list or in recipes anymore. I wondered if they were still around. So I took a look.
Canned and dehydrated meats were once very popular household items. Both were used widely during World War II, when rationing limited the availability of fresh meat. Today they’re more of a convenience item for a camping trip, lunch box, picnic basket, or underground bunker.
I made a list of some of the meats that were commonplace when I was a kid: Vienna sausage, dried beef, corn beef hash, deviled ham and Spam. I’ve not eaten them in decades. (I take that back. I had some Spam chunks atop a bowl of stir fried rice at Yellowbelly recently.)
Here’s what I recall about these meats of yore.
As a kid, Vienna sausage was always in the kitchen cabinet for a quick school lunch. The processed meat made from beef, pork and chicken trimmings had nothing to do with Vienna and it’s unclear just how the “little hot dogs,” as they were sometimes called, came into being. They still have a cult following among those who don’t mind the struggle that it takes to remove the first sausage from the tightly packed can.
Dried Chipped Beef
Creamed Chip Beef gained fame as military cuisine. During World War II, it was served to troops in the field, where it was affectionately referred to as “Sh_t on a Shingle.”
My mother bought packages of the dried meat to make Cream Chipped Beef, that she served over toast or biscuits. But even as a kid, I thought it was terribly salty.
For those who have nostalgic feelings about eating pressed, dried beef in a creamy sauce, it can still be found. Golden Coral has the dish on their breakfast menu and Stouffer’s offers it frozen. Southern Living features a piece about the old 40’s favorite on their website.
Corned Beef Hash
This classic dish made from chopped meat and potatoes can be made from scratch or bought already prepared. When I was a kid, we’d open each end of a can—like you would the Thanksgiving cranberry sauce—cut the meat into half-inch slices and fry it in a cast iron skillet. I doused mine with ketchup.
You could eat hash cold, since it was already cooked. But frying the meat in butter or bacon drippings made it crispy on the outside, giving it a gourmet quality. Today Corned Beef Hash is sold by Hormel, Libby, and Armour.
Deviled Ham Spread
Deviled ham was uniquely packaged in a tin wrapped in paper, featuring a devilish character with pitchfork and tail. It’s basically ground ham with added spices, such as hot sauce, cayenne pepper, hot peppers, and mustard.
When I was teenager, I’d sometimes take a sack lunch to school with a sandwich made from Underwood deviled ham mixed with mayo and relish and spread on Wonder Bread. Kids called such a concoction a “shoe polish sandwich,” because the spread came in a flat container resembling a shoe polish tin. Cooks used the mixture in deviled eggs and on crackers or toast. It was also combined with bread crumbs and formed into meatballs.
From the looks of this early ad (below), deviled ham was a good way to a man’s heart.
Perhaps the most notable of the canned meats is Spam, that was served on the battlefields of World War II and later recognized for its part in the war effort. Margaret Thatcher called it a “wartime delicacy.” The canned ham remains popular in the Pacific islands, especially Hawaii, where residents have the highest per capita consumption rate in the U.S.
New varieties of Spam include Lite, Reduced Sodium, Garlic, Cheese, Chorizo, Teriyaki, Jalapeno, Turkey, and Hickory. In recent years, the name has been borrowed to describe unsolicited electronic messages, such as spam email.
A Fresh Look
Today we recognize that canned meats are too often packed with flavor additives, preservatives, fat, sugar, empty calories, and sodium. While I have fond memories of these wartime treats, I zapped these processed meats from my diet decades ago in favor of fresh (or frozen) meats.
Hmm . . . now if I can only apply that same resolve to ice cream, chocolate, and pasta . . . .