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.
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.
Another point the museum misses is an explanation of exactly how and when Spam transitioned from pure caloric energy to cultural kitsch, or pop food. And how a generation of young people will clad itself in ironic Spam flip-flops, yet won't dare let the stuff touch their lips.
After I finished touring the museum, I bought every type of Spam the gift shop sold and invited a few friends over for dinner. A few people responded enthusiastically ("Call me Caucasian garbage if you want, but I actually like Spam. I used to eat it all the time as a kid"), but most shamefully admitted they'd never tried the product ("I feel like a bad Minnesotan for asking this, but has anybody ever actually eaten Spam?"). One friend flat-out refused to attend. "It tastes like arm," he said.
Those who were familiar with the holy trinity of salt, fat, and sugar knew that it's best prepared simply: sliced and fried, served on buttered toast. But hundreds of Spam recipes have been developed over the years, some as cheap and easy as cubed Spam tossed in macaroni and cheese, others as sophisticated and spendy as Spam lobster thermidor. The Spam website contains the largest recipe clearinghouse, though none are listed under the categories for vegetarian, dessert, or beverages. The Book of Spam even provides beer and wine pairings, suggesting American pale ales or sweet, fruity Rieslings.
That night we feasted on Spam sushi, Spamburgers, Spam stir fry, and Spam spread, pureed with mayonnaise and sweet-pickle relish. A Spam casserole—baked beans, canned pineapple, brown sugar, and Spam—was the evening's surprise hit: a mushy, salty-sweet comfort. When all was said and done—when the recycling bin was full of Spam cans and the leftovers packed up in doggie bags—here's what we learned about cooking with Spam.
• The gel is gone! The clear, fatty gel that once encased each block of Spam was eliminated in 2001, when Hormel added potato starch to the mix to absorb the gelatinous grease. The only Spam buyers who miss the gel are those who apparently liked using it—believe it or not—as furniture polish.
• You can actually eat Spam straight from the can. Seriously. It's not bad; it's a lot like bologna. Still, the preferred preparation is seared for a few minutes on both sides so that it's caramel-crisp on the outside and squishy in the middle.
• If you slice Spam very thin and cook it until it almost starts to blacken, you can make what we called "Spam crackers," or alternately, "Spackers." They taste a lot like bacon, though Spam already tastes like bacon. And if it's not bacon-y enough for you, there's always Spam with Bacon.
• Don't buy Garlic Spam. It smells like a mix of sweaty feet and vomit, and doesn't taste a whole lot better.
• Spam Lite might seem like an oxymoron, but it's for real. Compared to Spam Classic, Lite tastes meatier, probably because the salt and fat are toned down enough to allow you to actually taste the main ingredient. Classic has a more pleasing melty, fatty texture, but it's almost too salty to be eaten by itself.
• Despite preconceived notions ("You'd think a Minnesota company would pussyfoot with the spices," my friend remarked.), Hot and Spicy Spam lives up to its name, with a pleasant Tabasco burn.
• Spam Golden Honey Grail, packaged in a special Monty Python collector's-edition can, is the most succulent manna—its sweetness like syrup mixing with sausage—and was the top performer in our unscientific taste test. The only downside: The licensing agreement with the Spamalot folks bumped the price up to $5 a can.
When a few guests reached for seconds of my Spam dessert—cubes of chocolate-dipped Spam, a riff on chocolate-covered bacon—I considered the dinner a success. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to track down a Spam brownie recipe, mentioned by former Congressman Gil Gutknecht in a recent New York Times article.) By that time, our table talk had devolved into a discussion about the guys in Wisconsin who dug up a young woman's grave with the intent of having sex with her corpse (they'd seen her obituary photo and apparently found her attractive). One of my friends remarked that perhaps Spam would never shake its lowbrow roots. "This is exactly the kind of conversation you're supposed to have when you're eating Spam," she said.