Spam: It's not just for inboxes anymore

Just in time for the recession, let's take a look at all the wondrous ways to eat Spam

The other day, I did something I hadn't done in years. I pulled a square blue can out of the back of the cupboard, lifted the ring, and punctured its vacuum seal. The can released a primal scent—salty, sweaty, animal—a smell you'd know anywhere, even if you hadn't encountered it since the last time your father cooked you breakfast nearly two decades ago. I peeled back the metal top, flipped the can over, and squeezed it like I was trying to shimmy frozen orange juice out of its cardboard tube.

Nothing happened. I whacked the can against the countertop. Again, nothing. I slipped a knife into the can and pried it around the edges. Still nothing. Finally, I gave the base of the can a firm slap, and out slid a soft, speckled brick of pink, porcine flesh. It didn't look entirely edible.

The economy is down, which means Spam sales are up and the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, is running two shifts, seven days a week for the foreseeable future. Spam retails at about $3.50 a pound, a price comparable to other penny-pinching meats such as ground beef and braising and stewing cuts. But with Spam, there's no need to hassle with refrigerating, freezing, defrosting, or even cooking the meat. It's ready to eat, straight from the can. Yes, people really do eat it that way. If you've already sworn off lattes, canceled the gym membership, and started knitting all your holiday gifts, you may soon be eating Spam, too.

Spam musubi, a Hawaiian delicacy
courtesy of Hormel Foods
Spam musubi, a Hawaiian delicacy

In recent years, people have related to Spam less as a foodstuff than as a celebrity. The meat has its own poetry (Spam-ku, none of which needs to be repeated here), merchandise (neckties, fishing bobbers, onesies), and musical group (the Spam-ettes, famous for performing such tunes as "Mr. Spam-man"). There are Spam festivals (Spam Jam in Waikiki, for example; Hawaii tops the nation in Spam consumption, followed by Alaska) and Spam-carving contests (pigs and hot dogs are popular subjects). Hell, a man once proposed to his girlfriend with a Spam-can ring. (They were artists. She said yes.)

Spam may have a place in the Smithsonian, but it also has its own museum, on Spam Boulevard in Austin, Minnesota, just a few blocks from the Hormel plant. Inside, tour guides with Fargo accents (mine was wearing a Spam belt) direct visitors to an introductory video that plays a clip from The Tonight Show. "A can of Spam is consumed every 3.6 seconds," Jay Leno says. "It's sold in 99 percent of the world's grocery stores." In the background, Weird Al Yankovic covers a classic REM tune: "Spam in the place where I live...(ham and pork).../Think about nutrition, wonder what's inside it now." And during the next 15 minutes, Spam makes its way to Everest and Antarctica, Governor Pawlenty sports a Spam T-shirt in Iraq, and a can-shaped Spam-mobile drives off into the sunset.

Museum visitors learn the story of how Spam was invented in 1937 by Jay Hormel, son of company founder George Hormel (the name was originally pronounced to rhyme with "normal," though except for some Austin old-timers, most people tend to emphasize the second syllable). Spam isn't the "mystery meat" everyone assumes it to be—no snouts, tongues, feet, or hearts (though those parts are used in headcheese and scrapple). Spam is, in fact, a simple combination of pork shoulder, ham (the pig's rear thigh), salt, sugar, and sodium nitrite, which gives it its blushing color. The ground meat mixture is squirted into cans, sealed, and cooked, and, while actual plant tours are hard to come by, the museum contains an interactive station where visitors can try their hand at "making" Spam. As you stuff little pink beanbags into square tins, a timer counts out the hundreds of cans produced by the plant in the same time period.

During the Second World War, 90 percent of all Hormel canned goods were sent to military or lend-lease programs—troops sometimes ate Spam three times a day. While the war may have reduced America's appetite for Spam, it introduced the product to international markets, with particular success in the Asian Pacific. (Today, South Koreans give cans of Spam as gifts, just as Americans might give wine or chocolate.) After the war, Jay Hormel tried to improve the product's image with the Hormel Girls, a musical group that toured the country in a caravan of white Chevrolets, giving performances and conducting in-store promotions. But Spam's wartime overdose wasn't to be forgotten that quickly. Monty Python memorialized the meat in a 1970 sketch involving a cafe that served limitless permutations of Spam. (The actors repeat the word so many times that it clogs up any other dialogue, which inspired the term for junk email.) Unsurprisingly, the Hormel-funded museum doesn't mention the months-long strike that tore the town apart in the mid-1980s. The strike was so nasty that when the plant reopened, local bars were divided pro- or anti-Hormel, depending on the owners' views. At one Catholic church, some parishioners refused to shake hands and "pass the peace" with others in the same pew.

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