An Unforgettable Food

Austin, MN

June 10, 2002

In traveling north toward our next great adventure, Alaska, we found ourselves cruising along the expressway that cuts through Minnesota. As we traveled along the flat expanses in the eastern part of the state, Laura commented that it was getting more difficult to find stories that were interesting. "Jaded" is what it came out. We have seen so much that we find that many of the attractions we come across are duplications of something found in another state. It was at that point that I first saw the billboard announcing something I could really sink my teeth into. A tasty tidbit of information proclaiming a savory story that I knew I had to consume with gusto. Austin, MN, is home for the Hormel Food Co., and the main point of creation for one of my most favorite breakfast foods, luncheon meat, and dinner additive. If you're a SPAM lover, you will heartily agree that the SPAM museum is a must visit for anyone passing this way. The building is a one story brick structure with blue and yellow trim, those famous colors for this prestigious can. The approach has a life size bronze statue of the heart of the business, a farmer driving his hogs before him. I had to join this stoic figure for a photo opportunity before venturing into the history and memorabilia of what I have always considered a culinary delight, much to the chagrin of many of my friends. The lobby is spacious and warm feeling with several delightful volunteers ready to assist with brochures and helpful guidance. On the back wall was a most interesting photographic mosaic. Hundreds of small photos of Hormel workers on the job had been stained with reds and blues, than assembled in a specific pattern. When looking at the individual pictures up close, they seem to be normal photos with a slight tinge of color transparency. However when stepping away the color transparency blended together forming a definite image of the SPAM can. It was quite clever and something I had not seen before. Across the room was Spamy, the little can character that represents this most interesting product.  Again, there was a moment for photos. With this completed, we delved into the mystery of the mystery meat we had come to find out about. The story had its humble beginning with the son of a German tanner, and recent immigrant trying to make a living in the new world. Into this family was born John G. Hormel. He failed to follow in his father's footsteps, preferring to do an assortment of jobs for his nephew's packinghouse where he cashiered, delivered, butchered, packed and shipped meat. George soon had learned enough about the meat business for him to take a chance, and in 1891 he formed the George A. Hormel & Company consisting of himself and one employee. George would soon marry and have a son. After WWI his son, now grown, was given the task of developing a superior ham sealed in a can. And thus the canned ham became a common product around the country. It was here that I had one of my old beliefs dispelled. SPAM was not actually developed for the US Army in WWII. It was first created in 1937 as a luncheon meat. It enjoyed relative popularity as a result of a steady exposure in advertising. Just about anybody, who was anybody in Hollywood, got a shot at describing the delights of SPAM. Tasty, inexpensive, and with a long shelf life, it slowly found its home in the American kitchen. Within just a few years, Europe found itself in the throes of war, and America came to Britain's aid with the famous "Lend Lease " program. The English were starving, and America was sending tons of food in support. Ton after ton of SPAM hit the shipping lanes in convoys stretching across the Atlantic. It always seemed to be plentiful where most other foods were lacking. The Lend Lease program ended on December 7th, 1941, when the US was bombed by Japan and entered the war. Now it was the dogface solider, trudging through the hedgerows of France that carried the SPAM can. As the war dragged on SPAM became a household name for the military. Songs were sung, poems written and everywhere stories of the creativity of desperate army cooks trying to disguise, the nice, but oh so consistent taste of what had become the mainstay staple of an entire military complex. There were some other interesting things to be witnessed. Laura found herself assembling a can of SPAM against the clock that, instead of ticking off seconds, ticked off cans of SPAM made in the factory. She actually got pretty good, being able to complete a can in the amount of time the factory would have made 159 cans. The next to the last room contained a model supermarket with all the Hormel products displayed much as they are found in stores. What surprised both of us, was the number of products made by Hormel that carry other product names, such as Chi-chi. The last room was a gift shop with everything imaginable containing the SPAM logo. Cases of SPAM lined the walls, there were several I had never tried, and of course I had to have a can of each, so armed with all the delights of the day, I waddled out in anticipation of many a morning's breakfast featuring that famous gastrointestinal treat SPAM.

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