Scrapple and Treet have devoted fans. Deviled ham and Salisbury steak are lunchroom staples. But SPAM is the undisputed king of mystery meat. Made of pig parts and secret spices, cooked in its own cans right on the assembly line, SPAM rolls out of its far-flung factories at a rate of 44,000 cans an hour.
We know that because we learned it at the SPAM Museum.
Hormel, which makes SPAM (and 3,000 other food-like products) is headquartered in Austin. In 1991 it opened a small storefront company museum in a local mall. But its visitors mostly cared about SPAM. The company quickly rechristened it the SPAM Museum, but the public wanted more. So in 2002 Hormel opened an expansive new SPAM-centric museum in its own custom building, right across the street from the meat plant. If you want to fully savor American cuisine, you should visit the New World of Coca-Cola, the McDonald's Museum, and here.
"Spambassadors" roam the floor of the SPAM Museum, acting as guides (One from each shift is solely responsible for heating SPAM and serving it to visitors on toothpicks). We latched onto John O'Reilly, a retired Hormel employee, and let him lead us around.
A towering wall of SPAM, made of 3,390 cans, rises to the ceiling in the lobby. We asked John if the number had significance. "That's all that fit," he answered gruffly. We liked John.
A small theater, its doors shaped like the face of a grinning pig, screens a 15 minute SPAM video. We chose instead to walk down "SPAMburger Alley," from whose ceiling is slung a SPAM patty 4800 times larger than life-size. From some hidden corner of the museum, the Monty Python cast could be heard singing "SPAM" through a loudspeaker, over and over. A replica SPAM plant conveyor belt slowly moved hundreds of cans overhead in an endless loop. "They're Velcro-ed down," John said, "'cause there's always some hot dog 16-year-old gonna jump up and try to knock one off."
An electronic tote board at the museum records the total number of SPAM cans currently produced: nearly 6.5 billion when we visited. "They kill almost 20,000 hogs a day here," John said, nodding his head toward the meatpacking factory across the road.
SPAM, we quickly learned, was the crowning achievement of Jay Hormel, son of George Hormel, the company's founder. One exhibit, "A Shining Example," recounts how young Jay was told to polish his entire shoe, not just its front, "to do the job right, not just make a good first impression." Life-size ghost-white statues of George and Jay depict the moment that the company changed hands. Pushing a button triggers prerecorded voices that act out the pivotal scene:
George: I'm getting too old to run this company. It's time for you to take over the business.
Jay: What will you do with yourself if you can't come into the office every day?
George: Your mother and I are moving to California. We built a bigger house in Bel Air.
Jay: You always liked California. And we all knew this day had to come.
Freed from his father's shackles, Jay Hormel began redefining what it meant to be meat. "He was the idea man," John said. Exhibits reveal that Jay invented Dinty Moore stew simply as a way to fill 500,000 empty cans. He sold Hormel's version of chili con carne with the help of a traveling 20-piece Mexican song-and-dance troupe named the Hormel Chili Beaners. And on July 5, 1937, he introduced the world to SPAM.
A "Can Chronicles" display traces the evolution of the SPAM can, from the key-tab knuckle-buster to today's effortless pull-top. This leads to an exhibit of SPAM's role in winning World War II, and of Slammin' Spammy, Hormel's wartime mascot, a scowling, bomb-throwing cartoon pig. "We're grateful to have SPAM. It's not steak but it's good meat," says a video-projected GI in a tent. John offered a different perspective. "We still get guys coming through here saying, 'I'll never touch that goddamn stuff again'."
(A small display, "Feeding The Peacemakers," declares that "U.S. soldiers still eat SPAM," but that their rations are now supplemented by "Hormel Top Shelf stable entrees.")
The museum has a real radio station in a miniature building, KSPAM, with a display on the Hormel Girls drum and bugle corps (another Jay brainstorm). But we were drawn instead to the exhibits that encourage SPAM interaction. "Chez SPAM" is a small amphitheater that hosts live cooking demonstrations. "Global SPAM" uses a big blinking map to show SPAM's reach: 41 countries, including most of Polynesia. "It's mainly because they don't have to refrigerate it," John explained. "They can just stick it in a closet for 7 or 8 years." The "Garb and Guards" exhibit contrasts a 19th century sausage chopper -- George Hormel's first machine -- with smiling modern-day Hormel workers in ear muffs and mesh gloves.
Visitors are encouraged to try their hand at canning SPAM along a mock assembly line. Our first attempt took 33 seconds; our second 19. A tabulator showed that Hormel's robots would have churned out several hundred SPAM cans in that time. "Some nice-looking Mormon fellahs told me they did one in six seconds," John said, arching his eyebrow. "I have doubts about it."
The "Changing Marketplace" exhibit compares the years 1951 to 2001, or more specifically mom's home cooking to "how easy our lives are now thanks to convenience foods." Supermarket carts and display cases overflow with Hormel bounty, a cornucopia of push-button preparation. John said that some visitors, forgetting that they're not in a Costco, pick up a Vienna sausage or a chicken loaf and try to buy it (They would be disappointed; all of the food is fake).
There are countless bins of SPAM-branded beverage koozies, tennis balls, and glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts in the gift shop, but the only edible product that's purchasable at the SPAM Museum is SPAM -- all 12 varieties, plus vacuum-packed slices that are reportedly popular with meat-craving hunters and fishers.
We asked John if Hormel has ever considered making a vegetarian SPAM. "Some people do ask that question," he said. "I tell them it's un-American."