Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A Tribute to Spam, the Meat

Michelle Delio

AUSTIN, Minnesota -- Spam: It's evil, wicked and nasty. It's been legislated against and filtered out, its senders have been banned and busted, and it still keeps on coming. With its evil sidekicks -- spyware and viruses -- spam is the bane and blight of the internet.

But in Austin, Minnesota, also known as Spamtown USA, Spam rules.
Austin is where George A. Hormel started his meat-processing empire in 1891, and where Spam, the canned meat product, was invented in 1937. The centerpiece of the town is Hormel's Spam Museum.

"This place is 16,500 square feet of pure pork fun," said Shawn Radford, Spam Museum and archives manager.

Visitors enter the museum, which is located at 1937 Spam Blvd., through a wall o' Spam, a display of nearly 3,500 cans of the pork luncheon meat. A sign by the wall helpfully notes that if you manage to restrict yourself to eating only one can of Spam a day, the contents of the wall could feed you for 10 years. Since Spam has a shelf life of several years, this isn't as far-fetched as it may sound.
Visitors can then wander through the museum's Cyberdiner, a '50s-style eatery with internet-connected computers that allow visitors to browse Hormel's official Spam website, which is packed with Spam history and trivia. (Take notes here, folks, because there actually will be a test later.)

The Cyberdiner exhibit raises the obvious question: How does Hormel feel about its fine pork product being connected -- if only by name -- with e-mail offering porn, drugs and bogus investment schemes?

"Spam was 52 years old when the web went live in 1989," said Radford. "And, yes, of course the company was a bit taken aback when people began calling unwanted commercial e-mail 'spam.'"

Radford said that there were many discussions within Hormel a few years back about how the pesky Spam/spam issue should be handled.

"We have a product we really believe in, a product with a long and interesting history, and that product's name was co-opted for something that a lot of people really hate -- spam e-mails. So, sure, there was a lot of debate about how the whole situation should be handled," said Radford.

"But Hormel decided pretty quickly that it was best to be dignified and gracious about the entire issue," he said. "The company decided that instead of turning the lawyers loose we'd just assume that people can tell the difference between good canned meat and bad e-mail and that people wouldn't confuse the two. All Hormel asks is that people not use uppercase letters when referring to spam e-mail. Spam -- all uppercase letters -- is our product."

Hormel's sense of humor about Spam, as well as its pride in the product, is very evident in the museum. The company doesn't hesitate to poke fun at its pork product, while still pointing out that it's really a very nice meal that millions love to eat.

Museum visitors can watch the 10-minute tribute film, Spam ... A Love Story, where Spam fans are interviewed about their lunch-meat lust. In another exhibit, an animated World War II soldier gripes about having to eat Spam for every meal. Hormel shipped enough cans of Spam to the front for every GI to have three square meals a day.

"Spam fried, Spam boiled, Spam with cheese sauce, Spam and eggs, Spam surprise," drones the recording in the WW II section of the museum, listing the ways Spam was prepared for the troops.

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