Sunday, September 25, 2022

One dozen destinations #1: The Spam Museum

     My wife suggested — okay, urged — that I take a "real vacation," meaning: don't think about the column, the blog, or anything else related to work for a protracted period of time. Say two weeks. Since she is typically right about everything, I am taking her advice. But, having done this blog for nearly a decade, every goddamn day, and with a book based on it just coming out now, and wanting to honor the implicit promise of its name, I made preparations, and am leaving you with visits to a dozen disparate places, starting with the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, plucked from my unpublished and probably at this point unpublishable travel memoir, "The Quest for Pie," written a dozen years ago about a 2009 trip out West with my boys, then 12 and 13.
    Feel free to comment, though it might be awhile before I get a chance to vet and post those comments. Thank you for your patience.

     The Spam Museum is flashy, colorful, new — a gem of the museum-crafter's art — with George Segal-like white plaster figures recreating key moments in Hormel history, a faux butcher shop and lots of interactive displays that challenge visitors to fill and label Spam cans or compete as contestants on the set of a Spam TV trivia quiz show.
      We eagerly took part, testing our skill against timers and each other. The keys to a good corporate museum are honesty, humility and humor — The Three Hs — and the Spam Museum nails all three. Though “Spam" is a contraction of "Spiced Ham," I expected them to soft peddle the killing pigs part of their operation. 
     But there is no groveling to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; the doors to the theater are designed to look like pig snouts, and a glass case displays a “hog splitter” from a 1940s killing floor, a brutal cleaver that could have been lifted from a slasher movie. The employee magazine on display is titled “Squeal.” 
     Candor is a sign of character in a company, because the weak-minded, knee-jerk approach would have been to whitewash the museum of anything but a few cartoon pigs with curlicue tails. As far as humility, well, I've never been to a corporate museum that says so many unenthusiastic things about its own product, such as “I’d rather eat Spam than bugs,” uttered by a life-size video of a fatigue-clad soldier (Spam, it seems, practically won the Second World War for the Allies. “Spam played a critical role during World War II” visitors are told). 
     Or “It’s not steak, but it’s good meat and fills you up” and, of course, the exasperated blurt of “I don't like Spam!” in the famous Monty Python sketch, with Viking chanting “Spam Spam Spam Spam” in a cafĂ© offering more Spam items than even the menu at Johnny’s Spam-o-Rama. 
     The Monty Python display — they re-create the cafe set from the sketch — suffers a common corporate museum lapse, one also seen at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where exhibit design trumps the antique notion that people ought to learn things at museums. The Spam Museum shows the Monty Python sketch on a monitor, but without any background or explanation — a true oversight, given that the skit is the source of the not-insignificant Internet term for unwanted bulk commercial email. 
     Were it my museum, I'd assign a staffer to spend an hour reading over the many minutely-detailed histories of Monty Python to find little background about how the Spam sketch came to be, perhaps making the obvious connection to the early 1960s black-and-white commercial playing in the next room at the museum, whose chant of “Spam Spam Spam” is echoed by the Vikings in the Python routine. 
     “I wish it were more factual,” Kent agreed, as we wandered together. Ross has a habit of reading every word of every display in a museum, so he tends to lag behind. Every so often I would drift backward, to find him standing alone, stock still, hand on his mouth, studying a placard Kent and I had breezed past. We were nearly alone; there were hardly any other visitors. 
     After an hour crawling around the Spam museum — playing its mock TV game show, pressing the buttons, working as fast as possible at a pretend Spam canning line — we were shunted into the enormous gift shop, where we pawed over Spam sweatshirts and Spam shot glasses. Kent selected a bright yellow and blue Spam foam football. I bought four cans of Spam; two regular and two exotic flavors: garlic and “Hot & Spicy.” I figured they’d come in handy on hikes.


  1. You're actually going to eat that stuff?
    Even Khrushchev made fun of it in his biography, as we shipped entire shiploads of it to the Soviet Union during WWII through the ports of Murmansk & Arkhangelsk.
    He said it was awful, but filled them up & gave them energy to fight the Nazis.

  2. Eat it we did, for lunch atop Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone. Let's just say ... being circumspect ... that it didn't stay down long.

  3. Tell me it ain’t so — you don’t like the taste of Spam. Fried with eggs, it’s delicious, far better than bacon or sausage. For me, however, it’s instant heart attack; so I don’t eat it often.


    1. Few people I know admit they like the taste of Spam. I brought a can to the fire station where I worked and of course got the chorus, "How can you eat that "stuff"?"
      I sliced it real thin, fried it until it was good and crispy, dabbed as much grease off it as I could, ate a sandwich, and left the rest for whoever wanted it.
      I left the room. Not long after, I returned. Naturally it was all gone and I didn't find any of it in the trash.

  4. I have Spam with my weekend breakfasts: with a waffle (cooked in my own wafflemaker, not frozen) on Saturdays and some form of eggs on Sunday. I use a wire-arm cheese slicer to slice a fresh loaf into nine pieces, cooking three pieces to go with the meal and storing the other six for later weekend breakfasts. The spouse prefers bacon (Nueske's in particular), but I find Spam to be easy to work with and tasty to eat.

    I can think of other personal habits that may be harder to justify and more likely to kill me, so Spam just keeps me a little happier than I otherwise might be.

  5. I may be one of the only other people here who has visited the Spam Museum. My wife and I were there in October of 2010, and we enjoyed it. We didn't eat anything there, but there was a place down the street that sold Spam pizzas. My wife now makes them for me occasionally. We don't share them. She hates the stuff.

    I never ate Spam while growing up. Not once. My father would not allow it in the house. He saw too much of it during the war. He was not amused by all those jokes about soldiers eating it day after day after day. Fresh meat doesn't stay fresh for long in places like Texas and the Philippines, so that's what the Army served it or lump it. As a result, I never had any Spam until I was well into my adulthood...past forty, in fact. And then I came to love it. Go figure.

    My wife laughingly said that I shouldn't be eating it because of the Jewish dietary laws about consuming pork. My reply was an emphatic "BFD"...and I ate slices of it on slabs of matzoh, of all things. With brown mustard. And I made my very own Spam a la king...rice, mushroom soup, and chunks of Spam. With a dash of soy sauce and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese...for extra flavor. My doctor didn't laugh when he told me that such fare was sending my cholesterol through the roof. He told me to quit snarfing the stuff. So now I only do it a few times a year.

    Spam became immensely popular in Hawaii during WWII. The Army and the Marines not only had "ammo dumps" on the islands...they had "Spam dumps" as well. Those islands were the point of origin for boatloads of the stuff, that were shipped all over the Pacific. The locals would sneak through the fence and steal as much of it as they could carry. And they augmented their Hawaiian cuisine with it. There was food rationing, doncha know. Now there are "Hawaiian aisles" of Spam in their supermarkets. All kinds of flavors. Spam-and-pineapple pizza, anyone?

    Some of those wartime recipes may even be included in the "Great Taste of Spam" booklet that is published by Hormel. Its subtitle is "Snacks, Light Main Dishes, and State Fair Winning Recipes". Bought it at the gift shop. Doesn't tell you which state fairs, though. Inquiring minds (like mine) really wanna know.


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