Posted July 19, 2001 at 5:53 pm | No Comments

SPAM: as American
as apple pie.

We are so accustomed to using the word “spam” to refer to unsolicited junk e-mail that we often forget that the same word also refers to a canned luncheon meat.  SPAM, a distinctive chopped pork shoulder and ham mixture, has traditions deeply rooted in our American heritage.  Developed in 1937 by J.C. Hormel, SPAM was the first canned meat product that did not require refrigeration.

SPAM’s 1937 product launch was accompanied by a high-profile advertising campaign.  A character named “Spammy the Pig” was prominently featured in George Burns and Gracie Allen’s network radio show, and the so-called “Miracle Meat” was the subject of one of the earliest singing radio commercials.  Sung to the tune of “My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean,” the radio jingle’s lyrics were:

Hormel’s new miracle meat in a can.
Tastes fine, saves time.
If you want something grand, ask for SPAM!

SPAM sales boomed during World War II, since SPAM was not rationed like beef.  It became a prime staple in American meals, and was also used to feed our armed forces.  Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged SPAM’s role in the survival of the Russian military: “Without SPAM,” he once said, “we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.”

Look out Nazis,
here comes SPAM!

Oh beautiful, for spacious SPAM…

Today SPAM resides alongside Pez and Coca-Cola in its status as an American commercial icon.  More than five billion cans of Spam have been sold since 1937, and there are now many varieties of SPAM, including Low Sodium SPAM, SPAM Lite, Smoke Flavored SPAM, and Turkey SPAM.

The birthplace of SPAM is a small town in southern Minnesota called Austin.  Austin houses the corporate headquarters of Hormel, as well as the meatpacking plant where SPAM is manufactured.  Austin is also home to the SPAM museum and the J.C. Hormel nature center.

My friends and I visited Austin last weekend to attend the SPAM Jam, an annual celebration of SPAM.  According to the festival’s promoters, it brings in more than 20,000 people from 37 states and 5 foreign countries.  The event includes carnival midway games, an assortment of SPAM foods, a SPAM recipe contest, a visit from the SPAM-Mobile, and a variety of live music acts, including a performance by the “SPAMETTES”. We were there specifically for a five-mile race called the “Hog Jog,” and we decided that it would be only fitting to dress up in SPAM running costumes.
We weren’t content to dress up as cans of SPAM, however; there were already several Hormel employees at the SPAM Jam dressed this way. We wanted to dress up as the luncheon meat itself. We decided that tight pink Spandex uniforms would be the most appropriate matches for the gelatinous grayish-pink substance.

After the race, we strike winning poses in our SPAM suits.

Unfortunately the outfits had a tendency to be misinterpreted. As we left the hotel for the race, I asked the desk clerk if she liked our costumes.

“What exactly are you?” she asked. “Are you jugglers?”

“No, we’re SPAM,” I told her, and proceeded to explain our rationale behind the pink Spandex. Never having eaten SPAM, I asked her what she thought of the taste.

“SPAM is kind of salty,” she said. “Not so good plain. But my grandmother had this way of making it that wasn’t so bad. She would chop it up and put it in cream of mushroom soup, and then she’d spread it on toast, top it with grated cheese, and broil it.”

“Wow,” I replied, making an effort to keep down my breakfast, “she should have entered the recipe contest.”

The woman dismissed my idea, explaining that it was too common a recipe.  I hadn’t yet realized how many different ways SPAM was prepared.  At the SPAM Jam, we saw an astounding array of ethnic dishes and American classics made with SPAM, including SPAM gyros, SPAM kebobs, SPAM corn dogs, SPAM egg rolls, SPAM croissants, SPAM Rangoon, SPAM fried rice, SPAM burgers, barbecue SPAM, SPAM tacos, and SPAM pizza.

I stand beneath the SPAM Jam entrance gate in full costume.

So although I couldn’t bring myself to actually eat any SPAM at the SPAM Jam, I was endowed with a new appreciation for the convenience, versatility, and ingenuity of this unique food item that has graced our grocery aisles for decades, helping us overthrow the Third Reich and putting to good use all of the really disgusting parts of the pig that would otherwise be thrown away.

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