At the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn., a smiling woman walks over with a platter of pretzel-stabbed meat cubes and earnestly asks, “Would you like a Spample?”
I try the turkey option and imagine cat food tasting somewhat similar. The Portuguese sausage variety, however, hooks me with pep and flavor that makes it popular in places such as Hawaii, where it’s food-truck fare and a breakfast staple.
Spam’s cultlike following has drawn people from 50 states and more than 70 countries to this oddity of a museum — a free shrine to the often-mocked canned meat. For fans, the place is worthy of a pilgrimage. For others, it’s a chance to enjoy the cheeky humor behind Spam, with surprising stories of war, peace and global goodwill that can come from a humble rectangular can.
The origin of Spam began with a naming contest for Hormel’s new canned lunchmeat in the 1930s. The winner couldn’t anticipate that the name would someday encompass unwanted e-mails, become a verb and inspire “Spamalot,” the Monty Python musical.
When World War II rationing restricted production of tins and sugar, 90 percent of all canned foods were sent to soldiers overseas. The Supporting Our Troops exhibits tell how 1,961 Hormel employees enlisted in the military after Pearl Harbor, and the local plant became a war facility producing K-rations. With added ingredients such as apple flakes, carrots and eggs, Spam became a ready-to-eat meal.
The company’s wartime role continued in Korea and Vietnam. That likely fed into Spam’s coveted status in Asia, where postwar Koreans would scrounge for meals using old war rations and concocting budae-jjigae (“army stew”), a mix of Spam, baked beans, kimchi, ramen and spices. South Korea consumes about $250 million worth of Spam a year.
In Japan, especially near Okinawa, cooks make champuru, a Spam stir fry. Even Britain has its own twist, making Spam fritters that are eaten with mushy peas and chips.
“Visitors are shocked at how much people around the world love Spam,” said Steve Nordrum, one of the Austin “Spambassadors” who often lead museum tours.
A British man, whose father and grandfather worked at the former Spam plant in Liverpool, had his middle name legally changed to “I Love Spam” in 2016. He then got married at the Austin museum in 2017 before a honeymoon at Hawaii’s popular Spam Jam, a festival that draws up to 30,000 people a year. Hawaii consumes more Spam than any other state. Seven-Eleven stores there sell 75,000 bars of musubi (grilled Spam atop rice and wrapped in nori) every week.
If you want to eat like Hawaiians, you may need to road-trip to the Spam museum, which carries a full array of global flavors such as Portuguese sausage, teriyaki, Tocino and chorizo. Watch for Spamples.
The free museum also features interactive exhibits, including a production line and kids’ play area, along with quirky Spam-branded souvenirs such as T-shirts and Snuggies, skateboards, air fresheners, gift wrap and “canjos” — homemade banjos made from Spam cans (1-507-437-5100; spam.com).
More to do in Austin
Take a self-guided tour at the brick 1871 Hormel Historic Home, where George A. and Lillian Hormel lived. George started the company in 1891, followed by a foundation funding hospitality, the arts, education and autism research. The company also helped launch the Hormel Institute, which has been researching cancer for 75 years (1-507-433-4243; hormelhistorichome.org).
Rydjor Bike Shop and Museum sells and fixes bikes, but also exhibits more than 80 intriguing vintage bicycles mounted on the walls or hanging from the ceiling. Among the noteworthy bikes are a 1868 Boneshaker, a 1937 Ingo, a 1941 Schwinn Army Courier, a 1955 Spitfire or a 1969 Lemon Peeler with a classic banana seat. There are 1970s European racing bikes and a Waterford once owned by Robin Williams (1-507-433-7571; rydjor.com).
The Austin Area Commission for the Arts orchestrates concerts, musicals and plays at Historic Paramount Theatre, classes and exhibits at the Austin ArtWorks Center and the annual Austin Artworks Festival, coming Aug. 24-25 (1-507-434-0934; austinareaarts.org).
With modern interactive exhibits from night sounds and astronomy to a crawl-through prairie, the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center engages kids and adults with live birds, hands-on artifacts and prairie trails. The nearby Sola Fide Observatory has public night-sky viewings on the first and third Saturdays, April through November. The nature center also rents out canoes and kayaks (1-507-437-7519; hormelnaturecenter.org).
Paddlers can travel the 25 miles of Cedar River State Water Trail that begins north of Austin and runs into Iowa (dnr.state.mn.us/watertrails).
About 15 minutes from Austin, road-trippers can connect with Hwy. 56, also known as the Shooting Star Wildflower and Historic Route Scenic Byway. It winds through tallgrass prairie remnants that start the season with the subtle colors of prairie smoke and petite prairie shooting stars before progressing to wild sunflowers, asters and blazing stars. There’s also a paved Shooting Star State Trail that parallels sections of the byway between Rose Creek and Lake Louise State Park, which has camping and a beach along a former mill pond (dnr.state.mn.us).
Where to eat
Austin’s Tendermaid restaurant, with red and white awnings and a throwback Pepsi sign, has served homey loose meat sandwiches and malts since 1938 (1-507-437-7907).
Piggy Blue’s Barbecue lures visitors with Spam burgers, po’boys and fries, but also pulled pork sandwiches, sweet baked beans, coleslaw and gelato. Vintage gas station signs and guitars on the wall give it a back-porch vibe (1-507-434-8485; piggybluesbbq.com).
Where to sleep
Austin’s most unique place to stay is the 1951 Elam House, one of 13 Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the state. It has room for three guests and includes a tour of the house (1-507-438-9503; theelamhouse.com). Travelers can also find chain hotels, campgrounds and a handful of country rentals such as Jessie’s House in nearby Brownsdale (1-507-396-4705; jessiesguesthouse.com) and Rose Pedaler Log Cabin along the Shooting Star Trail (1-507-434-0500; rosepedaler.com).
Austin is about 100 miles south of the Twin Cities via Interstate 35 and Hwy. 218.
Discover Austin: 1-507-437-4563 or austinmn.com.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick (@lisamcclintick) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”