Sunday, March 30, 2014

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My Trip to the SPAM Museum



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The standard SPAM can is brick-shaped and holds 7 ounces of meat. A 2-oz. serving contains 170 calories, 7 grams of protein, and 140 calories of fat. I had seen the little blue cans on the grocery store shelf, the T-shirts, the TLC Cooking "SPAM History" special. I could tell a person about how SPAM played a critical part in WWII and that during the depression my grandmother regularly ate SPAM because the government issued it to hungry families. But for some reason the act of purchasing a can of SPAM and preparing it is something I had never done. Nor had I ever wanted to. People told me about SPAM. They said it was not really pork but some collection of various animal parts crammed into a can. Road kill? Sheep testicles? Who knows? SPAM was a mystery and I began to wonder: What is SPAM? How is SPAM made? I felt that perhaps a little research and a trip to the SPAM museum might help me to understand why I knew so much about SPAM but have never tried it.

The SPAM Museum is in Austin, Minnesota. It was interesting to me that there was such a place. I stumbled across a brochure, I don’t recall where, with a photo of the Sasquatch strutting through the woods holding a can of SPAM. “Amazing but true!” it read. “16,500 square feet of SPAM nirvana.” The SPAM Museum, much like SPAM in a can, was an enigma. What could they possibly have there? The brochure was sketchy; it mostly consisted of black and white photos with inserted colored cans of spam. Hikers from the twenties carrying cans of SPAM up a mountain, or a car reading ‘Just Hitched’ with SPAM cans tied to the back of it. The ads also advertised a ‘theater’ and ‘restrooms.’

Welcoming me was Jill, a stocky woman of about 5’ 2” with white hair. “Hello, there,” she said. “Welcome to the SPAM Museum. If you turn around you’ll see our wall of SPAM.”

Suspended above the entrance was just that, ‘a wall of SPAM’ with a rotating globe in the middle. It was massive, nearly two stories tall.

“It’s made up of 3,390 cans,” Jill said.

“My God, that’s a lot a SPAM,” the man next to me exclaimed. He was slender with an un-groomed beard that grew mostly from the neck.

Jill giggled and said, “Don’t worry now, the cans are empty, but to give you an idea of how big it is the globe inside is 6 feet in diameter.”

Jill recited statistics about the two SPAM plants, one in Austin, MN and the other in Freemont, NB. Together they can produce 44,000 cans of SPAM in one hour.

“My God, that’s a lot a SPAM,” the man said again.

I realized that the globe inside the wall was symbolizing the SPAM Empire. Although SPAM has a “best before” date on the tin, its official shelf life is indefinite. You can place a can of SPAM in your pantry and in 20 years, who knows, you might finally want a SPAM burger? This is part of what makes the meat a wonder. It can be stored and transported easily. Antarctica was the only place in the world that SPAM was not sold, but in October of 2009 SPAM entered the frosty south.

Jill retired from the Hormel Company (the company that produces SPAM) about 5 years ago and eventually wound up at the SPAM Museum. I told her about my interest in understanding SPAM and she became enthusiastic. Jill told me that the state that eats the most SPAM is Hawaii and the country that eats the most is Guam. “Yup, 16 cans per person per year in Guam,” she said. “They love it down there.” Jill gazed behind me and I got the impression that she did not know where Guam was.
I told Jill that I had never eaten SPAM.

“You’ve never tried SPAM?” She said. Her face scrunched up and I don’t think she believed me. I felt Jill's grip on my forearm. Her palm was soft and smelt like moisturizer. She pulled me closer. “Never?” she said.

I shook my head, “At least not to my knowledge.”

She exhaled. “You are going to have to get yourself a SPAM-ple.”

Before I left Jill, she placed a coupon into my palm reading “This Month’s Special: Purchase two SPAM t-shirts at regular price and receive $5.00 off.” She raised her brows and said, “Make sure you use that little baby.” I shared Jill’s enthusiasm. I love gift shops. Whenever I go someplace, concert, sporting event, or a county fair, I always want a shirt or underwear. The gift shop had SPAM t-shirts, yo-yos, letter openers, dinnerware and more. I even found a SPAM whoopee cushion. Part of SPAM’s success is through its ability to work its way into pop culture. It is like the world is trapped in its own little tin can with a blue and yellow label.

I have very low standards when it comes to novelties. At one time I owned a Charles Manson T-shirt, but as I sifted through countless SPAM items I found nothing that I would place on my body. Perhaps this is personal taste but if I were to wear a shirt reading “I think therefore I love SPAM” I would kick my own ass. But this shirt was nearly sold out. Surrounding me people were buying gobs of this shit. There was a line of nearly fifteen people at the register cradling mounds of SPAM memorabilia. I did some research after visiting the museum in an attempt to understand what has made SPAM apparel so socially acceptable.

In absurdist American author Christopher Moore's book Island of the Sequined Love Nun many formerly cannibalistic islanders have an attachment to SPAM because it has a very close
approximation of human flesh. I do not know how close the two really are. I have not tried either one but after learning this I considered a taste test. Then decided against it.

The 1996 movie Muppet Treasure Island featured a chieftain islander pig named "Spa'am". Hormel Foods Corporation sued Jim Henson Productions over the name. Hormel Foods lost the case before the film was released. On Muppets Tonight, there was another pig character named "Spamela Hamderson.” Please notice the proximity of these two factoids. One is about cannibals and the other is about naming two pig puppets in a children’s movie after canned pork. That’s right, Jim Hansen is promoting cannibalism.

The American parody singer Weird Al Yankovic often references SPAM in his songs, including a song titled "SPAM" (a parody of the R.E.M. song "Stand"), the lyrics of which explore the vocalist's obsession with the product.

SPAM’s pig hooves reach beyond books, movies, and music. Ever heard of SPAM Haiku? Nether had I but it is there and thriving. From 1995 until 2002, John Nagamichi Cho compiled a web archive of SPAM haiku. During this time, 19,696 haiku’s about SPAM were submitted by users from all over the world. Cho published some of the haiku in the book Spam-Ku: Tranquil Reflections on Luncheon Loaf.

Myrrh, frankincense, and
SPAM: the gifts of two wise men
and one complete fool.

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley


Ty n Casey's Mom said...

Come on Clint, I can't believe you're "too good" for the SPAM T-shirt. Whatever dude!!