As IDF bids adieu to Loof, a history of kosher Spam

On Nov. 14, the Israeli media outlet Ynetnews sounded the death knell for a staple of the country’s military diet: Loof, Israel’s kosher alternative to Spam.

Thanks to a policy of mandatory conscription, the Jewish state, in effect, had been force-feeding Loof — a colloquially corrupt short form of “meatloaf” — to its citizens since the nation’s founding. The resulting trauma alluded to in Gil Marks’ “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” is understandable: “Many Israeli soldiers insist that Loof uses all the parts of the cow that the hot dog manufacturers will not accept, but no one outside of the manufacturer and the kosher supervisors actually know what is inside.”

Loof anecdotes are ubiquitous and diverse: There’s the one about a current 20-year-old Israeli soldier who was handed a can of meat dated 1988. “It wasn’t bad,” the soldier said. “It just felt weird eating something that was older than me.”

Canned meats and the military have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship for at least a century — ditto for kosher canned meats.

Kosher canned meat in North America and Israel photo/jewish historical society of the upper midwest

“In the late 1940s,” begins the entry for Loof in Marks’ encyclopedia, “the Israel Defense Forces developed a kosher form of the British ‘bully beef.’ ”

Bully beef, a generic term used for canned meat in Britain, was served to British troops as early as the turn of the 19th century.

As is the case with many industries, wartime proved to be a boon for canned meats. Introduced in 1926, Hormel Spiced Ham — better known as Spam — originally marketed its canned meat based on the novelty and convenience that it did not require refrigeration.

Just as Spam benefited from the war effort — supplying 15 million cans weekly to Allied forces — the demand for kosher canned meats also began to increase. The wartime role of kosher canned meat was first mentioned by JTA in a 1942 article about Hadassah sending food to pre-state Israel from the United States.

The real boom in kosher canned meat took place when it became a crucial component of Jewish organizations’ relief packages for Europe’s Jewish war victims. JTA first noted this at the end of 1945, when the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee made canned meat available in displaced persons camps in Germany.

In May 1946, the Chicago Kosher Sausage Manufacturing Company — based in Winnipeg, Canada — registered a word mark with the Canadian patent office for a canned meat product called Breef.

Among kosher canned meats, “that was the best quality product of the bunch,” said Neil Feinberg, 74, the last owner of the Feinberg Sausage Company in Minneapolis. “Canned corned beef is like Spam — very similar texture. Only it was made of beef and had a corned beef flavor to it,” an effect achieved by using the same seasoning from the company’s regular corned beef.

Kosher canned meats weren’t limited to corned beef. Feinberg, whose company was started in 1890 by his great-grandfather, a Russian rabbi, as a kosher salami operation, also produced canned salami. In Pittsburgh, the Jan. 2, 1953 edition of the Jewish Chronicle heralded the arrival of a new product by the Penn Kosher Food Company: a 41⁄2-pound “whole chicken in a can.”

Alas, the glory days of kosher canned meat were short-lived following the war. One factor that may have contributed to the demise of Winnipeg’s kosher canned meat operation was increased competition in Europe.

For example, the annual report of Ireland’s minister of agriculture dated 1948-1949 noted that approximately 27 percent of canned stewed steak shipped to Europe was “Kosher canned stewed steak for the relief of distressed Jews.” In 1949, an Israeli rabbi set out to oversee a kosher meat-canning plant in Poland.

As for Loof in Israel, the need to replace it was accelerated by the realization in 2009 that the longtime manufacturing company Richard Levy, which had declared bankruptcy early in the 2000s, had stopped producing new cans. Upon making the discovery, the military realized it was now running solely on inventory.

After a year of test marketing with soldiers, the IDF announced last week that “ground meat with tomato sauce” was selected among three varieties of kosher, ready-to-eat meals that will replace Loof.

With the sun setting on the last great vestige of kosher canned meats, Jews might have look to Africa for traditional canned meats. Over the summer, the Kenya Meat Commission designated 600,000 tins of halal canned corned beef for famine relief.