Slice of Americana Laugh if you want, but Spam has its own muse

Saturday, June 15, 2002

AUSTIN, Minn. -- Depending on who's eating it, Spam is either a slice of post-war Americana or a slice of who knows what.

Whatever it is, the canned convenience food now has its own museum.

All you've got to say is Spam "and you've got a discussion," said Nancy Barker of Menasha, Wis., emerging from the Spam Museum Friday with a handful of memorabilia. "Of course, there's also quite a lot of jokes."

For 66 years this southern Minnesota town of 22,000 has been known affectionately, or derisively, as Spamtown.

"It's a part of our past and it's probably part of our future," said Barker, 65, who has her own recipe for Spam pancakes. "People are almost cult followers."

The museum has been open since September, but Spam maker Hormel Foods delayed a celebration until today because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The rescheduled grand opening is steeped in Americana, with famous TV moms like Marion Ross and Barbara Billingsley, sports figures and a World War II memorial dedication.

Inside the museum -- admission is free -- those followers will have plenty to absorb. A 430-foot conveyor belt rattles around the ceiling, carrying about 850 cans of Spam.

Visitors can take a Spam exam or can their own Spam (not the real stuff). There's also a radio station -- KSpam -- and a video screen that shows classic Monty Python skits slamming Spam.

The museum also has exhibits on the Hormel family, explains what goes into Spam (pork shoulder, ham, spices and preservatives) and describes the product's special relationship with American troops in World War II.

Vets swore off Spam

The war generated huge sales for Hormel, which provided 15 million cans of Spam each week to the military. From 1939 to 1942, the company's overall sales doubled to almost $120 million.

Gordon Handrich, a World War II veteran from Appleton, Wis., who was at the museum on Friday, remembered eating Spam. He liked it, but he remembered some soldiers who swore they'd never eat it again once the war ended.

A Spam-o-meter at the museum tallies the cans of Spam produced. Hormel expects to turn out its 6 billionth sometime between June 29 and July 3.

The museum has drawn 39,000 visitors since it opened, and the number is expected to double this weekend.

Laura Shields saw a freeway sign for the Spam museum and said she had to stop and drag her vacationing family in for a look. "It's incredibly cool," she said.

Some people may love Spam for its salty ham taste, but others are fascinated by the name. In 1935, Hormel President Jay Hormel held a contest at a New Year's Eve party to name the meat. The winner spliced the words "spice" and "ham" to claim the $100 prize.

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