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Jewish World Review April 2, 2001 / 9 Nissan, 5761

Chuck Haga

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Consumer Reports


Coming this year ... a Spam museum

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AUSTIN, Minn. -- The new specialized museum opening here later this year will have a 45-seat movie theater, a gift shop, a cafe ("Want some canned luncheon meat with that?") and interactive displays.

It will have 20,000 square feet of space inside and sculpted grounds outside, crested by a bronze statue of noble figures: two giant pigs followed by a farmer carrying a prod and a bucket of feed corn.

And it all will be devoted to Spam - not computer junk mail, but the luncheon meat that won World War II.

Hormel Foods Corp., the Austin company that introduced SPiced hAM (ergo Spam) canned luncheon meat in 1937, opened a small museum 10 years ago in a corner of Austin's OakPark Mall. The entryway is a large replica of a Spam can.

The can opening that visitors walk through features a "serving suggestion" - a slab of Spam, melted cheese, sliced tomato and onion, all on a sesame seed bun. (Fried Spam makes its own special sauce.)

But that's not how Charlotte (Chuck) Keller served it.

Keller, 76, raised five boys on Spam. Now she handles tourist inquiries about Spam's origins, recipes and other questions for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"I never served it just out of a can, sliced cold," she said. "We like it when it's ground up and mixed with cheese, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes and pickles, and served on a cracker. That's excellent.

"Another way is to grind it up with cheese, onion, sweet pickle and finely chopped celery, mix that with cream of onion soup and put it under the broiler. That used to be our regular Sunday night dinner."

The new museum, in a remodeled Kmart store on North Main Street, won't open until late this summer, but Keller said she already is arranging for bus tours. "We're getting a tremendous number of phone calls," she said.

It's a love-hate thing.

Spam has been called the "most universally maligned food product," except maybe for the U.S. military's C-rations. Thousands of World War II veterans who ate Spam in the field claimed they fought harder just to end the war and get back to hamburgers and pork chops, and they vowed that Spam's cans never would appear on their kitchen shelves.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower wrote to Hormel after becoming president, offering company executives clemency for "your only sin: sending us so much of it."

But the product's success since then suggests that some of those dogfaces relented. And Spam's image has soared in recent years - as a piece of history, anyway, placed on a pedestal if not on Everyman's food shelf.

The New York Times Magazine did a cover story on Spam in 1994. And in 1998, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., ordered a few cans for display.

The existing Austin museum has just 1,000 square feet with 500 historical photos and artifacts, most of which will be moved into the new museum.

The displays include meat-packing tools, meat-packer uniforms, Spam recipes (Uncle Spam's Fritters? Spamily Stew?) and product "endorsements" from former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre, entertainers George Burns and Gracie Allen (it sponsored one of their radio shows), and former Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev.

"We had lost our most fertile, food-bearing lands" early in World War II, Khrushchev said. "Without Spam, we wouldn't have been able to feed our army."

Sound like a lot of spiced ham? One museum display shows Hormel president and chief executive officer Joel Johnson holding the 5 billionth can of Spam in 1994.

Spam sponsored radio shows, car races and the Hormel Girls, a singing group and drum-and-bugle corps whose members also demonstrated cooking techniques and distributed Hormel products door to door from 1947 to 1953.

Mary Larson, 65, visited the existing Spam Museum this week with her husband, Bruce, 68. They're retired dairy farmers from Claremont, Minn.

Finding the little museum was like opening that first can of Spam. "Pleasantly surprising," Bruce said.

They didn't know that Hormel sold lard, vegetable soup and processed cheese, among past and current products on display. But they ate their share of Spam over the years.

"My mother used to cook it up and put cloves in it, like a roast," Bruce said.

"It's a staple, that's for sure," Mary said.

Bruce again: "Oh, it's not a gourmet food, but it's a pretty good product. There was a lot of hogs from our area that went into making Spam."

Chuck Haga writes for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.

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