Local Lunch Meat Makes Good, and Austin, Minnesota Pays Homage with a Fond 'Play It Again, Spam'

updated 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SPAM is America's spicy little secret—consumed at the rate of more than 100 million cans a year, yet rarely mentioned in polite conversation. "Nobody admits to eating it," says a spokesman for Geo. A. Hormel & Co., "but a lot of people do." Just look at the numbers: four billion cans sold worldwide since 1937, with sales still growing 3 percent a year.

Dubbed SPAM (for "spiced ham") in a name-that-product contest, Hormers legendary lunch meat turns 50 this year. So Austin, Minn., where SPAM was born, decided to put some extra meat on its Fourth of July festivities. The Chamber of Commerce sold SPAM T-shirts. The Lions Club hawked SPAMwiches. There was a SPAM-o-rama Cookoff and local artists vied to immortalize the mystery meat on canvas.

Actually, the contents of SPAM—a blend of pork shoulder, ham, salt, water, sugar and sodium nitrite—are no mystery. Between the salt and the fat (more than 70 percent), the original recipe is enough to make any modern nutritionist blanch. But SPAM was launched in simpler times and made its way on taste and convenience alone. By 1940, 70 percent of Americans had tried it. By the end of World War II, SPAM was well on its way to being a national institution, and a running joke. Gls called it "meat that failed its physical." General Eisenhower admitted to "a few unkind words about it—uttered during the strain of battle." David Letterman suggests "SPAM on a rope" for shower snacking.

Not everyone was amused by Austin's SPAMfest. Hormel's plant there has been embroiled in a long, bitter labor dispute; in 1984 the company cut wages and the local union walked the next year. The yearlong strike officially ended last September, but Hormel replaced hundreds of union members with new hires—and went on to post its highest profits ever. But the conflict is far from over, as evidenced by many "Cram Your SPAM" T-shirts.

Note, too, that even in a crowd of SPAMophiles, few were actually seen eating the meat. At the Lions' food booth bratwurst was said to be outselling SPAMwiches eight to one.

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