Tim's Turn - March 2019


The Spam Museum’s “Supporting Our Troops” gallery shows Spam’s history with the U.S. military. (Credit: Hormel Foods Corporation)

A Craving for Spam

A scene 60 years ago: “Hey Timmy, time for lunch,” my mother would yell out the screen door as I played in the backyard.

I would run to the kitchen, and my taste buds would start going crazy once I smelled what she had prepared. “Oh boy, fried Spam sandwiches again.” Fried Spam was quite the treat for me then. I would put the shriveled little slices on a piece of Wonder Bread, add a glob of yellow mustard, and gulp them down like I hadn’t eaten in weeks.

Somehow, for some reason, I outgrew those fried Spam sandwiches. In fact, I almost forgot about Spam. It’s usually not something most of us think about on a daily basis. But as I was traveling through lower Minnesota back in 2003 searching out funky roadside icons, someone suggested I visit Hormel Foods Corp. in Austin, Minnesota, where there was a small Spam-centric museum. I couldn’t resist that offer. It was a simple exhibit but a lot of fun and surprisingly educational.

I was a vegetarian by then, so my taste for Spam had been repressed, but my thirst for the unusual was still with me. Hormel Foods, especially Spam, is highly celebrated in these parts, and it’s good to know that while the company takes pride in its quality products, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I asked one of the guides if there were any plans to create a vegetarian Spam product, and he gave me a sly smile and simply noted that would “be un-American.”

The growing demand for Spam memorabilia and its related history caught the attention of the company, and it hired Cincinnati’s JRA (Jack Rouse Associates) to design a new, stand-alone interactive museum that would not only embrace its quirkiness and sense of humor, but tell its 80-plus year history. Filled with a wide array of interactive displays and exhibits, the “new” 14,000-square-foot Spam Museum in downtown Austin, Minnesota, opened in 2016 to rave reviews and is open with free admission year-round. Spambassadors greet visitors at the door, and guests can either take a guided tour or head out on their own. 

This iconic canned meat product has quite the history, and the museum shows the serious along with the whimsical. What surprised me was the quantity of the 15 varieties of Spam that is consumed throughout the 44 countries where it is available: 12.8 cans are consumed every second! A major display explores how the company shipped more than 100 million pounds of Spam to U.S. troops during World War II. 

Back in 2003 during my visit, I asked one of the Spambassadors, only half-kidding, if the restaurants in town serve Spam. She smiled and handed me a list of local eateries that have the product on the menu. George’s Pizza, for example, has the Spam Hawaiian pizza on its bill of fare. 

And, of course, a museum featuring a product with fans in all corners of the world needs to have a gift shop, and this one does not disappoint! Original T-shirts, mugs, and all kinds of branded merchandise are there for those wanting to spread the news back home that they have been to one of the most unique museums in the country. The only food available here is Spam, all 15 varieties. 

And if you enjoy unusual public gatherings, get this: next month (April), in Hawaii, where more than 7 million cans of Spam are consumed each year, the Waikiki Spam Jam will take place. Celebrating the state’s love for Spam, it’s one of the largest festivals in the state.

Maybe it’s from my days working for Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, but I especially found one of the facts presented in the museum to be nearly unbelievable. London’s Big Ben is 1,163 Spam cans tall. Believe it!

Tim O’Brien is a veteran outdoor entertainment journalist and is a longtime Funworld contributor. He has authored many books chronicling the industry’s attractions and personalities and is the only journalist in the IAAPA Hall of Fame.