A Spamtastic time awaits museum visitors

A By Tim Jones

aUSTIN, Minn. (KRT) – Interstate Highway 90 across most of southern Minnesota is one of those antiseptic roads interrupting cornfield monotony. No doubt this desolate strip of concrete has inspired legions of children, young and old, to whine, “Are we there yet?”

But a few miles from Exit 178B, just a little north of Myrtle, sprouts provocation: “Like You’re Not Curious” reads the billboard inscription. Beneath that is a blue and yellow can of SPAM, telling the bored traveler that relief, in the form of the SPAM Museum, is only minutes away.

SPAM, the salty canned conglomerate of pork, ham, sugar and sodium nitrites officially heralded more than 60 years ago by Hormel Foods as “America’s Miracle Meat,” thrives in a red brick shrine at the corner of Main Street and SPAM Boulevard in the southeastern Minnesota city of Austin, Hormel’s hometown.

Although food snobs – those who diss White Castle hamburgers, Jell-O and fish sticks and wouldn’t deign to drink a cup of coffee costing less than $2.50 – might drive by and sneer at what they consider the mystery meat in the little can, about 84,000 people have visited the museum since it opened last September.

“Welcome to the SPAM Museum,” says a pleasant white-haired woman who calls herself a SPAMbassador. She directs the visitor to the gigantic wall of SPAM, perched above the inside entryway, containing 3,390 cans of the meat and leaning precariously over the lobby area. Then it’s off to the giant picture of SPAM; SPAMMY, the smiling, waving can with big, clunky feet; and the 6-foot globe that shows all the places where SPAM – “Wonderful SPAM,” she says – is sold and eaten.

Then the visitor is sent on his way through the rooms and corridors of the museum. “Stay as long as you’d like, and have a SPAMtastic time,” the SPAMbassador says with a straight face.

It’s best to leave all pretenses behind as you walk through the displays commemorating this American culinary and cultural symbol. Hormel, which introduced SPAM in 1937, seems as equally comfortable with ridicule – including the 1970 SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM routine of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” – as it is with the international praise of millions.

In the United States, 3.8 cans of SPAM are devoured every second. More than 6 billion cans of it have been produced and distributed worldwide, providing no small amount of financial comfort for Hormel, not to mention a commercial thick skin.

A 15-minute film on SPAM, called “A Love Story,” features testimonials. One poet writes haiku about SPAM, with one featuring a lover who left her mate after he ran out of SPAM. Jim Murphy, a college student, says he has worn a SPAM T-shirt every day for the last five years.

“When I first started wearing SPAM shirts girls sort of thought I was a dork,” Murphy says in the film. No girls are interviewed and the college Murphy attends is not mentioned.

The SPAMettes, a female quartet, take liberties with the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin” and sings the praises of the meat with the refrain “So glad we ate it, So glad we ate it.”

Inside the museum, a conveyor belt filled with SPAM cans runs past a small theater where Blair Law and his wife, Rose, are taking a quiz on their knowledge of SPAM. The Laws, from Hampstead, Md., have been married for 53 years and were returning from a Navy reunion in Kansas City, Mo. They still eat SPAM.

“Oh, yes,” said Blair Law.

“And we raised our six children on SPAM,” his wife added. “SPAM and eggs, fried SPAM, sometimes just a cold SPAM sandwich.”

And do your children still eat SPAM?

“Oh, yes,” they chimed.

The Laws are part of the generation that holds strong and fond memories of SPAM. Many World War II veterans had a steady diet of SPAM. When the museum celebrated its opening in June, Tom Brokaw, of NBC News and “The Greatest Generation” fame, was on hand to join the festivities.

“We get an awful lot of World War II people here. They come in by the busloads,” said Mardi Temperley, who runs the cash register at the museum gift shop.

Temperley rings up hundreds of gift items that have the SPAM logo on them, including shirts, caps, footballs, stuffed animals, fishing lures, flashlights, alarm clocks featuring the slogan “It’s SPAM time,” martini glasses, Frisbees and yo-yo’s. The biggest seller, she said, is cans of SPAM. The second-biggest mover is glow-in-the-dark SPAM boxer shorts, with the cans flowing against a white cotton background.

Does Temperley eat SPAM?

“Oh, yes,” she said, explaining she prefers the spicy variety, sliced thin and cut along the length of the can. A lot of people eat SPAM, she said. Others, especially younger ones who have heard of it, but haven’t eaten it, are curious.