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The Spam Museum :: Austin, Minnesota

July 28, 2011 by  
Category: Attractions

There is still time to prepare for one of the great anniversaries of 2012. Yes, this year, Spam turns 75! No, not those annoying unsolicited email advertisements that offer you things you don’t even want and aren’t entirely sure are physically possible; the first internet spam message wasn’t sent until 1978. We’re talking Spam, with a capital S and a registered trademark symbol. You know: “Pork, water, salt, sugar, spices” and a few preservatives packed in a blue and yellow can with rounded corners. This icon of commercially-produced comfort food was first introduced by Hormel Foods in 1937.

Fortunately, there is The Spam Museum, ready to provide the public with the information necessary to appreciate this upcoming anniversary. Located in Austin, Minnesota just a block off I-90 (exit 178B), the museum was founded in 2001 and has been open every day (except for five major holidays per year) since. It is part corporate self-promotion, part social and culinary history, part near-cult campiness and part good, old-fashioned hucksterism. It is all great fun.

The two-story atrium entrance boasts a 5,000-can Wall of Spam (all of the cans are empty, of course) and a front desk, where docents wait to greet you. Beyond is a small auditorium which shows a short film consisting mainly of a montage of television commercial clips from the past 50 years or so. If this doesn’t put a smile on your face, then you haven’t gotten into the spirit of the experience yet, buster.

In fact, the first two exhibition halls are a little more serious than the initial impression promises. The first hall describes how George A. Hormel founded a butcher shop in Austin in 1891, choosing that town because of its central location on the Midwest railroad grid. Hormel’s business quickly grew from a small-town retail operation to a meat packing plant, offering fresh, preserved and canned pork to the region, the nation and, later, internationally. Spam (the name comes from a combination of “spiced” and “ham”) was introduced in 1937, at a time when the Great Depression was just about, but not quite, over. In 12-ounce cans, Spam was smaller, and therefore less expensive, than a full canned ham. The fact that it was a mix of ham (pork shoulder) and other cuts of pork also reduced the price. (The museum does not advertise the fact, but sales figures for Spam are still sometimes used as an economic indicator of recession and high unemployment.)

The timing of Spam’s introduction was fortuitous for Hormel. War in Europe and Asia led the United States to begin a large Lend-Lease program, which included not only military equipment but foodstuffs. Spam, as a canned meat, met the needs of a long-lasting ration for allied countries’ civilian populations and military forces. In all, Hormel shipped over 100 million pounds of Spam just as part of Lend Lease. Added to this were the requirements for the U.S. military after 1941, when millions more cans were shipped to Europe and the Pacific. There is even a life-size reproduction of a sign for “Spamville,” the World War II-era base of the 125th Fighter Squadron. While this hall includes a film clip of a G.I. grousing about having to eat Spam morning, noon and night, the reality is clear that, for many, the only meat they saw from month to month found its origin in a can marked “Spam.”

After these history lessons, we’re back to popular culture. One of the most impressive revelations was just how much time, effort and, apparently, money was dedicated to promoting Spam to the public. In the advertising model common at the time, Spam was the official sponsor in the 1930s for the George Burns & Gracie Allen radio show and occasionally for Artie Shaw’s radio programs, and also had live commercials on other shows. There are also bulletin board montages and monitors showing the variety of print and television advertisements made throughout the decades. Lest any detail of Spam culture go without comment, there is even a display of the evolution of the Spam can (although some insist that intelligent design caused these changes), from the ancient key-opened cans to the present flip-tab tops.

Don’t lose sight of Spam’s contribution to culinary history. An exhibition area offers taped demonstrations of special Spam recipes from Okinawa, Korea (with kimchi!), Australia, England and Hawaii. Ah, yes, Hawaii. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that, of the millions of cases of Spam that shipped through the Hawaiian ports during the Second World War, some percentage somehow stayed behind in the tropical paradise while the remainder went off to feed the troops. For whatever reason, the Hawaiians came to love Spam with such a fierce passion that the state is now the worldwide center of Spam devotion: Over 5 million pounds a year is consumed there. (Again, not mentioned at the museum, but certainly of importance, is the fact that Burger King introduced its Spamburger to Hawaii in 2007.) Don’t worry if you neglect to bring along a pad and pen to take notes during these demonstrations, though; the museum offers free recipe cards and many, many additional recipes and serving hints on their “spam.com/recipes” website.

Surely, the point at which Spam reached its true place in international culture was… The Monty Python Flying Circus’s “The Spam Skit.” As the museum visitors turn the last corner of the exhibition rooms, on their left is the sight of a giant Viking – full beard, horned helmet, fur tunic – standing next to a large monitor. A single button, worn from constant pushing, activates “The Skit” (as Spammites refer to it). A crowd gathers, adults begin to chuckle in anticipation, and children look a little confused as the scene opens on a small café in England… but you know the rest.

Almost worn out from an overload of Spam-centered information and entertainment, the museum visitors are about to leave, back into the cold, harsh reality of mundane life, when they see one last attraction: The Museum Shop! Before entering, close your eyes and imagine, well, anything – anything at all – but with the logo “SPAM” printed, silk-screened, embossed, embroidered or otherwise attached to it. Now open your eyes. Yup. That’s pretty much describes it: Tee-shirts, sweat shirts, baseball caps, knit hats, spatulas, hot pads, refrigerator magnets, towels, mugs, hockey pucks (this is Minnesota, remember), street signs (“SPAM BLVD”), shot glasses, cook books, plates, trivets, wine glasses (what?), umbrellas, watches, knives, sports-style pennants (rah, Spam!), travel alarm clocks, fly swatters, pens, pencils, postcards and – why not? – a golf bag.

And Spam. Of course Spam. Not just your routine, get-at-any-grocery-store Spam, either: Rare Spam. Every once in a while, the folks down in the Spam Research Department come up with an idea and decide to test-market a new flavor. Since even a “limited run” usually involves thousands of cases, there is always enough extra to sell at the gift shop. Take home a few cans of the black pepper-flavor; it’s really quite good.

Of course, after a couple of hours of wandering through the museum, seeing and learning about all things Spam, you’re going to begin to feel a little… peckish. Hungry, say, for a little processed ham and pork meat in a short can with rounded corners. Sadly, the Spam Museum does not have a cafeteria, but don’t lose hope: Local restaurants know a good opportunity when they see one. Within blocks of the museum are eateries that include dishes made from that food you crave. Of course, you can order breakfast (Spam, eggs and hash browns or a Spam and cheese omelets), but nobody has yet to offer the iconic Monty Python dish. For lunch there are Spam burgers, Spam Reuben, Western Spam melt, an 8-ounce Superman Spam burger, a Spam-and-pineapple pizza, breaded and deep-fried Spam strips and, for those watching their calories, a simple Spam and cheese salad. A perfect end to a day of the Spam experience.

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