Nearly 100 years ago, Hormel was the first company to make non-perishable, shelf stable meat. Before “spam” became the word used to describe unsolicited or potential scams relegated to junk email boxes, it was the brand name for Hormel’s popular canned meat product created in 1937. Today, in Southern Minnesota, a one-of-a-kind museum is dedicated entirely to the original SPAM (short for “spiced ham”).
In a scene from the 1970s Monty Python’s Flying Circus, customers are dismayed to hear SPAM listed in every dish on a diner’s menu. No one wants to order the protein from a tin, but the chef continues to offer them more and more SPAM combos as Vikings at a nearby table sing, “SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM.” Decades later, this skit reminded new internet users of the overwhelming amounts of unwanted messages in their digital inboxes—and the dual meaning stuck.
Inside the free, meat-themed museum in Austin, Minnesota, visitors can now purposely spam their own inboxes with hundreds of SPAM recipes sent from computer stations, including SPAM tater tot casserole or Musubi, a SPAM-sushi rolled with nori and sticky rice. The Monty Python diners might not have been impressed, but apparently the famous canned pork is perfect for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.
Despite my skepticism, I email myself a recipe for SPAM butterscotch cookies. When I return home and bake them, I discover the irresistible novelty of a salty and sweet carnival treat combined with the comfort of a Christmas cookie—and immediately devour nearly the entire tray.
19,000 hogs a day
The first Hormel factory opened in Austin more than a century ago. George Hormel, the son of German immigrants, started a smokehouse and processing plant in 1891, butchering 610 hogs in the first year of business. The current factory can process up to 19,000 hogs in one day. Hormel sources the pigs from local farms in Iowa and other nearby agricultural states.
The SPAM Museum features interactive exhibits where visitors can learn more about the legacy of Hormel. A walk-through display shows historic photographs of the Hormel family from their humble beginnings as ranchers through to the now-billion-dollar company that produces many familiar consumer brands such as Skippy peanut butter and Dinty Moore stew. However, SPAM is still one of the company’s most popular items: 141 million cans of the spiced ham are sold every year.
SPAM was introduced on July 5, 1937; during the Great Depression, canned pork was desirable because it did not require refrigeration. Hormel sent millions of SPAM cans each week to soldiers stationed abroad during World War II and SPAM became a staple protein in dozens of nations. In the U.S., residents of Hawaii eat the most SPAM—the meat is even served with fried rice as a staple item on the island state’s McDonald’s breakfast menu.
Also on display in the museum are some of the original SPAM cans; before the pull-top lid, each tin came with its own key. The World Market exhibit highlights the influence that SPAM has had on cultures across the world. In a video, Japanese hip-hop artist DJ Misoshiru & MC Gohan, known for her rhymes about food, dances with mascot Spammy-kun.
My museum guide enlightens me with facts about a product that was previously a mystery to me (and, I suspect, to many others). I grew up on the Jersey Shore, where our local convenience meat was Taylor Pork Roll. I only knew of SPAM from its prominent place in popular culture and the jokes that it was not real meat (it is, mostly).
“Think about the stuff it’s made from—wonder if it’s mystery meat,” sings “Weird Al” Yankovic in his song “SPAM,” a parody of R.E.M.’s “Stand.” During my comprehensive tour of the museum, I discover that the recipe is actually quite simple. Each can of SPAM contains only six ingredients: pork, water, sugar, salt, potato starch, and sodium nitrate. The mixture is poured into the tins on an assembly line, then vacuum-sealed and pressure cooked inside of the classic square canisters. Picturing this, I can almost hear Yankovic singing, “The tab is going to open the can. The can is there to hold in the SPAM.”
Located in the heart of downtown Austin, the museum is within walking distance of several local breweries and restaurants that feature—what else?—SPAM on their menus. This region of Minnesota is also home to unforgettable road trip destinations such as the Mall of America and Paisley Park—but no matter where you are, “SPAMbassadors” give live virtual tours of the museum via Zoom every Tuesday and Thursday at 2 p.m.
After my tour ends, I browse the yellow and blue souvenirs for sale in the museum’s gift shop. The store is a must-stop for branded novelties, including SPAM underwear, flip-flops, lip balm, jewelry, and snow globes. For the very brave, there is even a square car air freshener that looks and smells just like the iconic canned meat.
If you go
The SPAM Museum is free to visit and open 7 days a week, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.