Sunday, March 30, 2014

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My Trip to the SPAM Museum (Part II)

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This is just a small sampling of the social obsession that is SPAM. People see a t-shirt with the classic can of pork and think about cannibalism or the Muppets or Muppet cannibalism. SPAM is a joke, and artists are thriving off of it. Weird Al Yankovic has sold more than 12 million albums and Spam-Ku was made into a movie in 2004. (The movie is not based on the Haiku’s themselves, it's about some assclown winning the Spam-Ku writing contest. I also think there is some sex.)

The Hormel Company encourages the laughter. Sponsored by Hormel are The SPAMettes, a female quartet that can’t get enough SPAM. While the SPAMettes have not shared Weird Al’s success, they have performed such classics as “Mr. SPAM-man” and “Stand by Your SPAM” for almost two decades. These four ladies traditionally sport blue dresses with yellow hats and scarves in an attempt to mach the infamous SPAM can. Four women loving a lunchmeat enough to sing about it raises an inevitable question: Are The SPAMettes hearty ladies? The answer is, three appear slender and one… well let’s just say the form follows function.

Located in the SPAM Museum is SPAMmie a five-foot tall smirking can of SPAM with arms and legs. SPAMmie is a statue made from an unknown polymer with white gloves and large sneakers. Its gender is ambiguous and there is no distinction between the head and the body because they are amalgamated. This may not seem odd when compared to other food icons like the Oscar Meyer Weiner. But when Jill asked me if I would like a photo next to SPAMmie and said, “Could be next years Christmas photo, you never know.” It seemed unusual that employees of the SPAM museum would encourage family photos with SPAMmie to be used for Christmas cards. I do not know if The Hormel Company asked Jill to say this, but I can say they were not stopping her. I listened to her repeat the idea to nearly a dozen people. Hormel has benefited from embracing the laughter associated with SPAM, over 141 million cans of SPAM are sold worldwide each year.

The SPAM museum is attached to the Hormel Plant and I was under the assumption that the museum would include a tour of the plant. I was wrong. Instead there was a SPAM production activity. This section of the museum was titled “SPAM Production.” The title seemed straight forward, but once again a novelty had replaced the actual product. The SPAM production section consisted of small pork colored beanbags, unlabeled SPAM tins with yellow snap on lids, an oven looking device with a light and a stop watch, and fabric SPAM labels that looked like sweat bands. It was a game to see how many cans of SPAM you could produce and then compare your time with the production ability of the Austin Plant. Next to the workstation were cubbyholes that read “Factory Fashions.” Inside were white lab coats. I put one on and felt more like a scientist than someone who worked placing processed meat into a tin can. I pushed start on the oven and a timer began. Rapidly I placed the pork colored beanbag into the tin, slapped on the lid and placed it in the oven. The oven dinged and I removed my cooked SPAM and slid the fabric label over the can. Then I placed the finished product into a rack and hit the stop button.

In the 59 seconds that it took me to make one can of toy SPAM the Austin Plant had made 189 cans of real SPAM. I was amazed. How was this possible? I wanted to see this in action.

I found Jill and asked her if I could see the plant. She told me no. Apparently the FDA put a stop to touring the plant some years ago. Then she asked if I had seen the SPAM Production exhibit.

Once again I was left with research. I will admit it took me a good amount of time to find information on the production of SPAM. Most of what I found were vague details of pork shoulders mashed with spice. One website described a conspiracy of the Hormel Corporation, claiming that SPAM was made from rodent remains. Perhaps this is where the rumors of various animal parts crammed into a can started. The production information I found that seemed most complete was on the How Products are Made website written by Deirdre S. Blanchfield. The website is an extension of Blanchfield’s book series of the same name.

It was there that things got gritty. Blanchfield breaks SPAM production down step-by-step and includes a diagram. SPAM is the part of the pig that does not separate easily into a ham steak or bacon. Essentially, it is the leftovers. (Perhaps “leftovers” is the wrong word. Readers see that and assume I am talking about hooves and asshole, but rest easy, The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not permit any nonmeat fillers in lunchmeat, nor does it allow pig snouts, lips, or ears.) The primary ingredient in SPAM is chopped pork shoulder meat mixed with ham. Pig meat is purchased from dealers and brought into the Hormel plant. There is a difference between the process of acquiring ham and shoulder meat. Pork shoulders are put into a powerful hydraulic press that literally squeezes the meat off the bone. Think of squeezing out toothpaste, but bloodier. Ham, however, must be cut away from the bone by hand. What the Hormel Company is doing by using leftover pork for SPAM is getting lemonade from lemons. This sound cliché, but after I read about squeezing meat from shoulders the analogy fits almost too well.

The meat is transferred to a crane-like machine and then dumped into a large metal trough equipped with a drill bit. There, the drill bit thoroughly grinds the red and white pieces together into a moist pink. I can only imagine the smell of pork shoulder and ham being processed with a large hydraulic drill. A small sample of SPAM is analyzed to ensure it has the right combination of pork to ham and white to red pieces.

The ground meat is then distributed into several vacuum mixers. The mixers are equipped with a refrigerated ammonia outer core that brings the meat temperature down to below freezing. Then, the other ingredients in SPAM—salt, sugar, water, and sodium nitrite—are added. The mixer lid is closed, creating an airtight seal, and the batch is mixed. The reason the vacuum is needed, the meat chilled, and the salt added is to reduce the amount of juice released by the meat when it is cooked. If too much liquid is released during cooking, the can would contain a large amount of gelatin. It would be like SPAM in a Jell-o mold. SPAM meat is a bright pink color. Pigs are pink. It is comforting to see a color associated with pork when opening a can of SPAM; particularly with rumors of rodent remains flying around. But it is not pork that gives SPAM its pink color, it is sodium nitrite. Without it, Spam would discolor and become brown. A color associated with… well rodent remains.

SPAM moves through pipes until it reaches the cone-shaped can fillers. The ground SPAM is placed into the can. The closed cans head to the six-story-tall hydrostatic cooker. SPAM is cooked in the can by very hot water within the cooker. As the cans leave the hydrostatic cooker, they are now cool and ready for labeling.

I met Mike in the SPAMville Exhibit. I stand about 5 foot 6 and it was refreshing to meet a man shorter than me. He smelled like ham. It was powerful. Like Jill, Mike had also worked for the Hormel Company before coming to the museum. He had worked in the finance office for forty-four years. I wondered if all that time around SPAM stunted his growth. Mike and I talked about The
Hormel Company. I told him that I had never tried SPAM.

“Never?” he said.

A woman holding a tray of SPAM cubes with pretzel sticks wedged in them approached me.
“SPAM-ple?” she said. Mike nodded towards them.

I plucked one from the tray, popped it in my mouth, and rolled it around. At the time all I knew about SPAM was that it made me laugh. I did not know about Spam-Ku and Spamela Hamderson. I also didn’t know about the process of producing SPAM, about squishing pork shoulder meat and hydraulic drills. Mike watched eagerly as I dragged the meat across my pallet.

“Tastes like ham,” I said.

Mike raised his eyebrows, “Yup.”

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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


Sarah said...

Once, in a tragic attempt at gravy, I made a sort of meat jello. I found out later that a dish called an aspic is basically a meat jello, but on purpose, which horrifies me.

Personally, I prefer not to include Spam in my diet, but I do find it somewhat laudable that their product utilizes what some people would call leftovers. I hate wastefulness.

Thanks for the Spam lesson. One day I'm gonna bust out with some Spam trivia, and people will have their suspicions of me oddness further confirmed.

Ty n Casey's Mom said...

I like that you used the word "assclown." Eric says clown face all the time but I think I will now encourage him to use assclown. It rolls off the tongue better.