Spam; a cultural phenomenon. While most canned meats go completely unnoticed by the masses – nearly everyone knows the wonder of Spam. I grew up only 20 miles away from Spam Town, USA, yet I never thought Spam was anything more than a last-minute meal for the anemic. My sister and I took a trek to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota to learn more about why Spam is more than oink-based mystery meat and in fact has a very rich history.
Austin is proud of their Spam-(em)pire. The first Hormel factory and their corporate headquarters are located inAustin. They have a spam festival called Spam Jam, each summer and proudly wear their S-paraphernalia with pride; like a varsity letter jacket. I never quite understood this when the Hormel factory makes much more culinary appealing food like Jennie-O turkey.
The Spam museum is free and very well done. The exhibits have a nice mix of kid (and Megan) friendly displays and activities along with more complex historical information for adults.
In the very first room of the museum, I learned that Hormel was responsible for making chili everyday American cuisine. Hormel did a big marketing push in the 1930’s for their brand new concept: chili in a can! Prior to this campaign most Americans had never heard of chili.
Spam is essentially just canned ham. I’m not sure why this was so surprising to me. I guess I always just assumed Spam was more of a hotdog like concoction. Spam became critically important during World War II. Since spam is fully cooked, high in protein and has a long shelf life, Spam was used to provide millions of meals to American soldiers then and still today it is often served in the military.
Along with learning the fascinating history of Hormel and the impact it played in American history, the museum was also upfront about the butchering process. Although I didn’t read the explicit details, I respected that the museum curator (does a Spam museum have a curator?) addressed the topic and didn’t hide the butchering process. It is obviously an important part of making spam, and it would be inauthentic to skim over that.
After Erin and I had learned of Spam history, we were ready to make spam…. Well we were ready to pretend make Spam at least. We donned our protective gear, and challenged each other to a six can spam-off.
First you had to grab a can, put the spam (beanbag) in the can, affix the lid, “cook” the spam, then add the label. Making make-believe Spam is hard work. I was feeling pretty stressed out by the whole ordeal. In the time I packaged my six fake Spams, the Austin factory had packaged 784. Erin won our Spam-off by 6 seconds. Damn her and her quick, kid wrangling hands!
I can’t wait to try the Bacon Spam I bought in the gift shop. Well, actually I can wait, since it’s been a week and I haven’t eaten it yet… but it will make for a good “I have no desire to make anything that requires time or effort” meal. I’m proud to be a Spam eater. If Spam is good enough for our soldiers, it’s good enough for me.
I still don’t quite understand how Spam became such an odd cultural phenomenon. I see a lot more Spam clothing around then I see actual spam meals. I’d like to do a case study on their marketing strategy. I can’t think of another food that can be widely embraced culturally, but also generally thought to be not that great to eat.
I left feeling proud to be American, where a brick shaped piece of canned processed meat covered in mystery jelly-like substance can become a household name and inspire Monty Python skits, Broadway musicals and helps our entire nation rest easy that an emergency meal is always available in the way back of your pantry, and that meal is Spam.