As Waikiki Spam Jam, the event dedicated to the pink, canned, processed meat, makes plans for its return in 2022 after a two-year pandemic-imposed hiatus, it serves as an indicator of both progress and continued hesitancy regarding large gatherings.
Pre-pandemic, Spam Jam was a one-day affair that took over Waikiki's main drag with arts and crafts vendors, live entertainment and lots of food, particularly Spam in any possible form -- ice cream, noodles, pizza, cupcakes, dumplings.
Spam's popularity in the Aloha State goes back to World War II, when U.S. GIs returning from war and stationed on the Islands were issued the blue cans as part of their rations. It worked its way into Hawaiian cuisine, such as in the ubiquitous Spam musubi found in markets and corner stores, and today the state consumes more Spam per capita than any other. After launching in 2002 with roughly 5,000 attendees, Spam Jam grew to welcome 35,000 to 40,000 Spam enthusiasts annually prior to Covid-19.
The 2022 Waikiki Spam Jam, which will feature special Spam dishes at roughly 20 restaurants and other events, will run from April 22 to May 1. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Waikiki Spam Jam
"It's the largest Spam festival in the world," Waikiki Spam Jam marketing director Toby Tamaye said. "We've had 'Wheel of Fortune' offer a Spam Jam package as a prize. People have gotten married here. Other people have gotten married in the Spam museum in Minnesota and then come to Spam Jam for their honeymoon. We hold recipe contests, and the person with the best Spam recipe wins a trip to Hawaii."
Large events missing -- and missed
Since March 2020, in-person events in Hawaii have largely been nonexistent. Most annual festivals and other cultural programs have gone dark for the past two years while a handful ran virtual events in 2021. The Honolulu Marathon in December, with 9,000 participants, was one of the largest gatherings of people since the onset of the pandemic, but still fell well short of the 33,000 runners the race attracted in 2019.
The 2020 and 2021 installments of Spam Jam were canceled, and organizers were planning to bring the festival back in its original form in 2022 until the omicron variant forced them to rethink things. With so much uncertainty, it was decided an alternative format would be best.
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"We were adamant about bringing it back this year, but we're erring on the side of caution," Tamaye said. "I think by summer there will be more in-person events and festivals, but this is a good solution for an event coming soon in the spring. It also helps get the word out for these restaurants that have really struggled during the pandemic."
This year, Spam Jam will run from April 22 to May 1 in a style similar to the restaurant weeks held in many U.S. cities. Roughly 20 restaurants across Waikiki (to be announced at a later date) will offer special Spam dishes on their menus.
"Every kid here grows up eating Spam," Tamaye said. "The mainstays are Spam musubi and Spam and eggs for breakfast. When you go to restaurants though, you hardly find Spam on the menus unless it's a breakfast place. So we want to challenge the chefs to create some really unique Spam dishes."
The Spam Jam team is recruiting restaurants representing a variety of cuisines to ensure a wide selection of Spam creations, Tamaye said, and to represent Hawaii's diverse array of culinary influences including Native Hawaiian, Korean, Japanese and Filipino.
"The goal is to bridge the international gap and evolve the event so it incorporates more flavors. There should be Spam Greek pitas and Spam tacos and burritos," he said.
Additionally, there will be Spam Jam mini-events at shopping centers in Waikiki throughout the week that will offer apparel, Spam art displays and appearances by Spam mascots.
For Waikiki, it marks a step toward restoring the many art, food and musical events that peppered the pre-pandemic calendar for the state's largest resort corridor.
"Spam Jam is one of the first events to come back, and we hope to set the tone for the rest of the events to come this year, getting back to some kind of normal while still keeping people safe," Tamaye said. "We're just going to celebrate Spam as best we can."
The event organizers say the restaurant week-style format is a solution just for this year to bring the event back in the safest and most responsible manner.
"Unfortunately, we're in a different time right now," Tamaye said. "I'm really excited about the pivot we'll be doing, but it's hopefully only for 2022. In 2023, we want to bring the block party back to Kalakaua Avenue on the final Saturday of April, and I think it will be bigger than ever."
Spam Jam is a charitable event with food donation collection sites and proceeds benefiting the Hawaii Food Bank, Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii and the Waikiki Community Center.