No bologna: the truth about Spam

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When you spend 36 years with a meat processor who is also a trivia buff, it’s a sure bet the history of Spam comes up every now and then.

My husband loves to regale dinner guests with his wealth of knowledge about the canned chopped-ham product whose acronym stands for Spiced Pork and Ham. He knows a lot about Spam and its success story, how it was introduced by Hormel in 1937 to solve the problem of a glut of pork trimmings in the meat business. And how it became a staple for American soldiers during World War II because the salty lunch meat didn’t require refrigeration and had the shelf life of a rock. And how Hawaiians consume more Spam than any other state — 7 million cans a year.

These are statistics I can rattle off without even thinking because I’ve heard the story so many times through the years.

Recently, I was able to add a few Spam tidbits of my own to the conversation. In the latest alumni magazine from my alma mater, Minnesota State University-Moorhead, the entire edition focused on Minnesota’s food industry. In the center spread of the magazine was a feature story about Spam, complete with an illustration of a Viking holding an armload of Spam products.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

“Honey, look, here’s a great article about Spam,” I declared. “And it has statistics!”

I started rattling off the article’s bullet points: there are 12.8 cans of Spam products eaten every second; 44 countries where Spam is sold, 15 varieties of Spam (garlic, teriyaki, jalapeno and chorizo are among the flavor varieties) … 350 cans produced per minute at one Spam plant, 8 billion cans sold since 1937.

I could sense my husband’s enthusiasm as he contemplated this new knowledge, filing it away for future dinner parties.

Many of you may know the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, is the mother ship for Spam production. The state’s connection with the canned ham is an odd source of pride for Minnesotans. There’s a Spam Museum in Austin that holds all the memorabilia about the meat product one could ever imagine. I’m surprised my husband has never suggested a road trip to Austin. It’s also where the final judging is held for the national Spam recipe competition.

But here’s the thing. For all of our insight into this gelatinous chopped-and-formed meat, I have never purchased a can of Spam in all 36 years of our marriage. I contemplated picking up a can of Spam for the purposes of this column, but just never got it done. The nutritional label that reveals one serving of Spam provides 57 percent of the daily value of sodium probably is reason enough to leave it on the shelf, although there is now a reduced-sodium version of Spam.

My mother used to serve Spam once in a while. When I was 10 and Mom went to the hospital to have my youngest brother, she had stocked the cupboards with Spam and left me in charge of making meals for Dad and my other two brothers. I dutifully made Spam for every meal — fried Spam and eggs, cold Spam sandwiches, Spam hotdish (casserole for non-Minnesotans). Perhaps that explains why I’ve not eaten it since childhood.

After getting a fresh dose of Spam trivia, I seem to have assumed my husband’s over-zealous interest in the product. I found myself uncovering even more fun facts about Spam that I have yet to share with him. One was that the byproducts in addition to the luncheon loaf itself were valuable during World War II. The fatty gel surrounding the Spam in each can was actually used to grease guns, or so the story goes, and the tin cans became important scrap metal during the war years.

Spam has been the brunt of jokes through the years. Weird Al Yankovic’s rendition of “Spam,” a parody of R.E.M.’s “Stand,” declares “now, if there’s some left, don’t just throw it out; use it for spackle or bathroom grout.”

But what can’t be disputed is the product’s success despite its lowly reputation as canned ham. That’s what makes such an intriguing story to tell.

Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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