When you've never tasted Spam, there's only one way to prepare for the Spam Museum: Eat Spam. And the places to do that in the town of Austin, Minn., are plenty.
The southern Minnesota town of 25,000 is the home of Spam, which turns 75 next year. The 16,500-square-foot Spam Museum sits in a brick building in the Hormel Foods complex east of downtown.
To fully appreciate this town's most famous museum, it seemed appropriate to first try its signature food. How else could I understand the greatness? The history?
Steve's serves Spam pizza. Johnny's Main Event offers a Spam Reuben. Kenny's Oak Grill makes a Spam de' Melt -- Spam, melted American and Swiss cheeses, bacon and sour cream (on wheat bread because, you know, it's much healthier that way).
The sodium (a mere 57 percent of a day's recommended intake)? Pizza seemed the gentlest route, so I stopped by Steve's (421 N. Main St., 1-507-437-3249) and asked about the Spam pizza.
"We sell a fair bit," my waitress said. "Most people get it with pineapple."
She paused. "It's better that way."
Fifteen minutes later, a steaming circle of melted cheese arrived, topped with glossy pineapple and thick, glistening chunks of pink. The cheese was gooey, the pineapple sweet, the crust dry and the Spam ... well, different. Spongy. A little smoky. Plenty salty. It reminded me of waterlogged salami. It made me miss pepperoni.
Properly primed, I made my next stop at the Spam Museum. Steps inside, a lifelong Austin resident named Jim, who wore a blue shirt stitched with the Spam logo, stopped me.
"You just walked through our great wall of Spam," Jim said.
He pointed above the door, where 3,390 Spam cans hung in a tight honeycomb.
"Those are real Spam cans, but they're empty," he said. "It would have been a waste to put all that Spam on the wall."
After posing for a picture with Spammy, a smiling, 4-foot-tall can of Spam with arms and legs and cartoonish eyes, I sat through a 10-minute Spam orientation film to learn that America's most famous meat has been "made with love since 1937." I was pretty sure pigs were the other ingredient.
Hormel obviously wears a bit of a chip on its corporate shoulder; its first Spam-related exhibit was a three-dimensional graphic that read, "Whatever you've heard is in Spam luncheon meat probably isn't. Over the years many people have joked about what ingredients are in Spam." "Most" of the meat in Spam, the graphic says, comes from "the front shoulder of the hog."
I turned around to find a family in matching yellow T-shirts, the backs of which said: "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam." The front said, "Spam Fest 2011." Though Honolulu; Austin, Texas, and Shady Cove, Ore., have all hosted Spam festivals, this one turned out to be the invention of the brood before me -- the Caswells, of Stockton, Ill.
To amuse their family of eight, Steve and Lori Caswell, both of whom grew up in the 1960s with Spam in their lives, invented the festival last year. It included Spam corn dogs, Spam in a blanket, Spam kebabs and, for dessert, Spam in a puff pastry with maple glaze.
It raised a question, and it wasn't, "Can I have the recipes?"
Instead: Why does Spam engender such passion, such devotion, such ... T-shirts?
The museum does an admirable job of answering the question. One exhibit highlights Spam's explosive growth during World War II, when it helped sustain a nation and its troops. Another demonstrates its globe-conquering popularity. Another plays radio advertisements from "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show." A stroll through the museum makes clear that, love it, hate it or never had it, we are all familiar with Spam. Taking itself too seriously would be the death of the museum, but it does no such thing -- especially as gray-haired women make the rounds with samples speared on pretzel sticks.
I wound down my trip with a visit to Johnny's Main Event (107 11th Av. NE.), where the menu includes Spam and cheese salad, a Western Spam melt and, yes, a Spam Reuben. I'd like to say I ordered a double Spam burger with a side of Spam, but I can't. I got a veggie omelet.
Though he "loves" Spam, owner John Clark understood.
"I think Spam has an excellent flavor," Clark said. "But I don't eat a lot of it. I have heart problems."
The Spam Museum is at 1101 N. Main St. in Austin, Minn. (1-507-437-5100; www.spam.com/games/museum). It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.