January 26, 2014

PORKOPOLIS; or, A Visit to the Guggenham *

Guest Post by Diane_in_MN

Local attractions are, of course, frequently ignored by locals until some outside stimulus calls them to mind.  In my case, the outside stimulus was a visit from a good friend last September.  She would be staying for a few days, and while life in my house is not entirely boring and predictable, it’s boring and predictable enough that I like to line up a few interesting things to do.  We have gone to the Stereotypical Used Book Store. **  We have dressed up (so as not to look like tourists) and gone to the local Renaissance Faire, a good option but not if one’s friend isn’t staying over a weekend.  Poking around the little shops in a not-entirely-touristy little town is also good, but that’s just one afternoon.  And then I found the SPAM® Museum.#

We have lived in Minnesota for twenty years or so, and while I knew that Austin, Minnesota is the home of Hormel Foods, maker of SPAM®, the SPAM® Museum was a new one on me.  In fairness to myself, it only opened in its current state about ten years ago, so it missed being included in Minnesota: Off the Beaten Path, the guidebook I bought before we moved here.***   I myself have only encountered SPAM® in a school cafeteria—where it was not a popular feature—but a whole museum devoted to a canned meat product could hardly be passed up.  Besides, the web site said that the exhibits include a Monty Python tribute.

We really wanted to see the Monty Python tribute.

So on a nice sunny day, my husband, GF and I abandoned the dogs and headed out to Austin and the SPAM® Museum.

We arrived early in the afternoon and found a spot in the gated but free parking lot, which had more cars in it than you might expect.  The museum building is a handsome brick structure, trimmed in SPAM® blue and yellow, and as we walked up to the door, we passed a bronze sculpture honoring the ones who make SPAM® possible—namely, pork on the hoof.^

SpamEntryCollage2

As we picked up our Official Tour Guides inside the museum—admission is free, too—we saw the impressive Great Wall of SPAM® over the entry doors.

SpamWall

The SPAMbassador (that’s what they call them, really) who greeted us told us that photos were not only allowed , they were encouraged, and to prove it offered us disposable cameras in case we’d forgotten our own.  She also told us that the Great Wall is made up of almost 3,400 SPAM® cans—empty or full, she didn’t say—and directed us to the SPAM® theater, where we could see an informative video on the history of SPAM®.

SpamTheater

You can’t see this from my photo, but the theater is shaped like a can of SPAM®.  (And by now, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.)

We emerged from the theater into a replica of an early twentieth-century grocery that gave us some information about the founders of the Hormel meat-packing company.  Hormel packaged the first canned hams, so the 1937 debut of a chopped-and-pressed seasoned pork shoulder product—i.e., SPAM®^^—was probably a logical next step.  The rest of the museum is devoted to SPAM® exhibits.  A graphic map of the United States highlights where all that pork shoulder, not to mention the bacon and ham that Hormel also produces, comes from.  A global map illustrates SPAM®’s world-wide reach.^^^  I liked the display of SPAM® advertising through the decades, and was particularly charmed by this one

SpamAd

from 1938 or so.  I suspect that anyone employing a live-in maid or cook during the Great Depression wouldn’t have been frying up a slice of SPAM® on the maid’s night out.

We had learned, from the helpful educational video, that SPAM® is now made in twelve varieties, including one made out of turkey instead of pork+, and SPAMbassadors in the museum proper had samples available for tasting.  (My husband, the carnivore in our family, tried a few, and thought the teriyaki version wasn’t bad.)  In the best modern style, the museum offered several interactive exhibits, including one where the user can make a can of SPAM®, but by the time we got to that point, GF and I were ready for the Monty Python exhibit, and it did not disappoint.

The Monty Python exhibit is the last one in the museum, and the Official Tour Guide describes it as “the funniest SPAM® brand moment in the history of television.”  Who could argue?  The exhibit gave us the Green Midget Café, with a highlighted menu, and a Viking.  (And how could I have forgotten the Vikings?)  Pushing the helpful interactive button ran the Monty Python SPAM® skit.

SpamPythonCollage2

We watched it three times before moving, still laughing, into the essential museum exit area, the gift shop.

The gift shop may not contain “every SPAM® item imaginable,” as the Tour Guide suggests, but it gives it a good shot.

SpamShop2

GF has friends in Hawaii, where SPAM® is so popular that Honolulu holds the SPAM® Jam festival every year, and did a fair amount of Christmas shopping amongst the assorted bric-a-brac.  I considered a few tee shirts,

SpamShirtCollage2

but since my tee shirt drawer is already full of Great Dane shirts, I somewhat regretfully passed them by.

I didn’t see any sign that Hormel has embraced the use of their product’s name for junk e-mail, but aside from that, the company deserves a good sport prize for not taking themselves or SPAM® too seriously.  The SPAM® Museum turned out to be a lot of fun, and the next time I have visitors (well, visitors in SUMMER), it will probably be on my list of things to do.

**************************************

*  I wish I could take credit for these names, but they came right off the museum’s web site.

**  Old house, narrow stairs, literally sagging floors, double-filled shelves, piles of stuff next to the shelves, the whole shebang.  Pictures and knickknacks, too.

***  This excellent book did inform me about the Kensington Runestone, the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion, and the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.   We haven’t visited them.  It’s the dogs’ fault.

^  There’s a farmer with these hogs, but clearly it’s the porkers who are the real stars of this show.

^^  The name is a contraction of SPiced hAM, as we were informed in the educational video.

^^^  I had just recently heard a story on National Public Radio about the great popularity of SPAM® in South Korea, especially as a necessary ingredient in a dish called, no kidding, Army stew.  Apparently a can of SPAM® is a nice hostess gift in many parts of the world.

+  I have been told that Minnesota has more turkey farms than any other state.  I guess turkey SPAM® should be a no-brainer.  There is, as yet, no vegetarian version of SPAM® even though you can hardly go five miles without encountering soybeans in the Upper Midwest.

# May I just say . . . love.  –ed.

comments

Please join the discussion at Robin McKinley's Web Forum.