I have a long history with Spam. Longer than any recovering vegetarian with no real ties to Hormel Foods probably should. It’s meat with worldwide popularity and a multi-year shelf life, cooked within its own rounded can that, when covered in that famous blue-and-yellow label, qualifies as Americana. To me, that’s fascinating stuff.
I once visited Austin, Minn., to attend the old Spam Jam celebration — whose dissolution I still mourn — where I tried Spam for the first time. (I’m an active admirer but a rare eater, though I do usually keep a can on hand for decorative purposes.) I’ve been to both former Spam museums, so when I heard Hormel was opening a new one in downtown Austin, I made plans.
After I told my kids, Roy and Vera (6 and 4 respectively), that we were going on a road trip to see the new Spam Museum, they said, “Yay! What’s Spam?” In my own home. How had I been so neglectful? Luckily, we were that very morning headed to the best spot in the entire world to rectify our little situation.
The museum’s grand opening isn’t until July 29, part of Hormel’s 125th anniversary celebration, but Spam fans have been visiting since the soft opening in April. When we arrive on a Friday morning, it’s busy but not packed, and we’re immediately welcomed by a SPAMbassador (actual term).
The museum is free, and the wide-open 14,000-square-foot space is easy to dive right into. The kids beeline for the International Market, with stands highlighting the Spam experience in different countries. Monty Python’s famous tribute plays on a loop in the English pub. In the Philippines, Roy and Vera take turns on a touchscreen that lets you color-customize a Jeepney, popular public transport there. I enter my e-mail address to receive links to my kids’ works. For the record, I get them and only them. No ensuing, um, spam.
At the center of the museum, a cluster of four mini Spam assembly lines, with beanbag lumps of pretend meat, fake cooking machines and stretchy labels, invites competition. We start our timer to see how fast we can put together eight cans, then try to beat our own record. Next to us, things get heated between some grown men over a single can’s assembly. “Twenty-three seconds! Yes!” “Fifteen seconds, loser!”
In the play area, the kids climb and slide, then fiddle around in a fully outfitted pint-sized farmhouse kitchen. I join a grandpa at the picnic table, on cushioned grass-colored flooring in front of an Adam Turman farm-themed mural. Our little charges serve an elaborate fake-food feast — a plastic turkey sprinkled in rubber French fries, wooden sushi, a variety of grill-marked simulated meats.
There are interactive history displays, recipe kiosks, puzzles, Spam art and artifacts, lots of Instagram-friendly backdrops (How Many Spam Cans Tall Are You?) and, of course a suggested hashtag (#SPAMselfie). The kids would’ve happily stayed longer. But I’m getting hungry for not-plastic food, so I herd them toward the gift shop.
As we’re browsing the T-shirts, flip-flops, books, magnets, dish towels and fly swatters, for Spam’s sake, another shopper comments on how busy it is. “Oh, it’s always like this,” the cashier says. We set our selected Spam plates and little bag of Spam snacks in front of her. After ringing us up, she hands us our goodies and says, I kid you not, “Have a Spamtastic day!”
Absolution is mine.
Spam Museum: 101 3rd Av. NE., Austin, Minn. 1-507-437-5100; spam.com/museum.
Hormel celebrates 125 years on July 29 with the daylong Hometown Community Celebration. The Spam Museum’s ribbon-cutting is at 9:30 a.m., and downtown music, food and entertainment starts at 3 p.m., including a zoo-mobile, Hormel-branded mini-golf, jugglers and samples, culminating in performances by Kat Perkins and the Band Perry, plus fireworks (hormelfoods125.com).
Jay C. Hormel Nature Center: We decided to make the short drive to the Hormel Nature Center on the northeast edge of Austin. It was a trip highlight. We hiked some of the 518 acres, visited the resident barred owl and poked around the little air-conditioned interpretive center, filled with feathers, skulls and creatures, real and stuffed, including lots of hands-on opportunities for kids. There are canoe and kayak rentals, too. A new center three times its size is scheduled to open on Earth Day 2017 (1-507-437-7519, hormelnaturecenter.org).
Hormel Historic Home: The 1871 Italianate home that company founder George Hormel and his wife, Lillian, bought for $3,000 in 1901 sits two blocks off Main Street. Take a self-guided tour weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. ($3). The home’s Peace Garden hosts free concerts throughout the summer (1-507-433-4243, hormelhistorichome.org).
Austin beyond Hormel
Rydjor Bike Shop and Museum: This museum is full of bicycles dating to the late 1800s, such as an 1886 Columbia Ordinary with a 54-inch front wheel. Rydjor also rents bikes, both regular ($15/hour) and electric ($55/half day) (1-507-433-7571, rydjor.com).
Paramount Theatre: Ideally, you’d take in a performance from one of the 620 stadium seats under moving overhead clouds in this 1929 downtown gem. A tour is a fine backup option, though. Call ahead to arrange one (1-507-434-0934, austinareaarts.org).
Austin ArtWorks Festival: Local and national artists, authors and musicians converge, with demos, galleries, concerts and more, in and around downtown’s historic power plant, Aug. 27-28 (1-507-434-0934, austinareaarts.org).
Where to eat
As they say, when in Austin. Spam is served in about a dozen restaurants, from fast-food to fancy. (Discover Austin keeps a list at austinmn.com.)
Steve’s Pizza, a 38-year-old local favorite with huge windows overlooking Main Street, folds Spam in among all your standard toppings (1-507-437-3249, pizzaaustinmn.com).
Coffee House on Main makes a respectable Spam-salad sandwich, made to order like the rest of their sandwiches, wraps and panini (1-507-433-1200, coffeehouseonmain.com).
The Old Mill is a fine-dining classic with prime rib, shrimp scampi and a Spam Dunkers appetizer. Request a river view (1-507-437-2076, oldmill.net).
Where to sleep
There are seven hotels in Austin, six of which are chains clustered along Interstate 90 (austinmn.com/stay).
The owner of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Elam House rents out the 820-square-foot guesthouse suite, and gives an overnighters-only evening tour of the main house (rooms from $225; 1-507-438-9503, theelamhouse.com).
Take Interstate 35 south from the Twin Cities about 90 miles to Interstate 90 east. It’s about 20 more miles to Austin.
Discover Austin, Minnesota: 1-507-437-4563, austinmn.com.