|The SPAM Museum, located in Spamtown USA aka Austin, MN|
After this childhood experience, coupled with a growing understanding of the history of Spam plus my move out to the Midwest, meant the discovery that an actual museum dedicated to this rather unique food product meant a road trip was in order. Sad to say, our first attempt to visit resulted in failure, as we arrived but 20 minutes before closing time.
This time, we made sure to arrive in plenty of time to bask in the sheer kitsch and glory that is Spam, which recently reached its 80th anniversary.
It probably does help to know what Spam is (the Hormel Company introduced this canned luncheon meat product in 1937) to fully enjoy this museum. It also probably helps if you have some sort of liking and/or nostalgia for the product. Regardless of how you feel, however, the staff at the Spam Museum, stationed in Austin, MN since 2016, makes it easy for the visitor to get the full multi-dimension experience.
Unique artwork celebrating the product can be found dotting the walls close to the entrance, while circulating servers carry sample trays of various Spam products, most of which are the more uncommonly found varieties here in the states such as "Hot and Spicy" and "Portuguese Sausage." Overhead, the whir of a mock production line full of (what else) cans of Spam provides a constant din and more eye candy for the visitor.
Museum docents tout the guided tours to folks for an even more in-depth look at perhaps Hormel's most internationally-known product, being sold in 44 countries; for the self-guided visitors like us, they'll direct you to their so-called "Can Central" area as the preferred starting point.
Here, one can access numerous touchscreen displays where one can test your Spam knowledge (one question slyly points out Hormel's dismay with its product's association to unwanted e-mails) as well as peruse all manner of creatively designed Spam recipes, some of which were submitted by professional chefs. Hormel helpfully gives you the option to e-mail yourself anything that sounds intriguing enough to try at home (I sent myself the Spam Bahn Mi recipe for the heck of it.)
Much of Spam's notoriety (good and bad) came with the advent of World War II. The luncheon meat proved to be very portable and immune from spoilage, and Hormel was more than willing to contribute to the war cause by producing a lot of it to send to fuel the troops. Not surprisingly, a section of the museum is dedicated toward the company's relationship with the U.S. Military.
General (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower probably reflected many of his men's feelings who weren't too enthused with with a famous quote about Hormel's "only sin' regarding the luncheon meat. However, there were fans out on the front lines, as this placard notes in both cases.
The second effect of the war was the introduction and adopting of the product by many Pacific Island and Asian cultures for varying reasons (for a good dig into this phenomenon, this Eater.com article detailing the history of Spam is a good starting place.) The museum's "World Market" area, which highlights some of the areas of the world where Spam is more or less part of the lifestyle, offers some unique items like the Spam Gift Box (found in South Korea) and more visitor interactivity, including a "Angry Birds"-styled video game with a Spam makeover in the UK booth, as well as a "Design Your Own Spam Jeepney" postcard designer (another thing you can e-mail to you or a friend) in the Philippines section.
More interactivity lies scattered throughout the rest of the museum, especially in the "Spam Brand 101" section (where you try to can your own spam as quickly as possible, dress up in Hormel Factory gear for a nice cheesy photo, and see how many Spam cans you are tall) as well as youth-geared "Kids Can Play" section.
Two other sections are geared toward learning about the Hormel Company (which set up shop in Austin in 1891) past and present as well as the world of Spam today. Included in the latter is the section dedicated to the British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus, whose famous (infamous?) sketch about a very Spam-centric dining experience and derivative "Spamalot" Broadway production in the 2000s has only boosted the luncheon meat's name in the American psyche.
Of course, you can't not venture into this museum without checking out the gift shop, and sure enough, Hormel has put together a collection about any Spam-related item you can imagine, from the more uncommon flavors of this luncheon meat to more common items such as T-shirts, key chains, magnets, to the much more novel.
Lest we (or you) thought "Spamtown" is a name the residents of Austin take lightly, we were quickly disabused of that notion when we across the street The Coffee House on Main to load up on caffeine for our journey northward. We were just here for what turned out to be a couple of credible espresso-based drinks, but we discovered that had we not gotten our fill of the fabulous luncheon meat during our museum visit, there were than enough options available here to meet that deficit.
101 3rd Ave NE (Google Maps)
Austin, MN 55912
The Coffee House on Main
329 N Main St (Google Maps)
Austin, MN 55912