Monday, August 15, 2005

Lovely Spam, Wonderful Spam

Enough about the glories of Yellowstone (see last week). What I really need to write about is the Spam Museum. It may be one of the few things that Lilly really remembers about this trip.

The first leg of our trip took us west and north along I-80, exiting Illinois north of Rockford, and then toward La Crosse, Wisconsin, a town on the Mississippi. Amid the flatlands of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the drive through the sloping and wooded terrain around La Crosse offered a welcome break — a fine little stretch of Interstate, for those who imagine there are none anywhere. In mid-afternoon, we reached Austin, Minnesota, hometown of Hormel Foods, and, since 2002, of the Spam Museum.

It’s a museum for our time, devoted to a commercial operation, full of light and color and sound and things to touch, fairly informative if you want to know about Spam, occasionally funny, and with an exit that directs you into the heart of the gift shop. I went in wondering if I’d see: (1) Monty Python’s Spam skit; (2) any mention of the bitter strike at Hormel in the 1980s; (3) or any discussion of the term as it’s used on the Internet. I got two of out of three. Not bad.

I didn’t see quite as much I wanted to, since Ann was determined to play with an exhibit that included an early 20th-century telephone switchboard, which had a lot of switches within her reach. She stayed there, or went back to it, for quite a while. It was part of a simulated “Hormel Provisions Market,” a pre-Spam business run by patriarch George Hormel, complete with fake hanging sausages and other old-time grocery doodads.

Hormel and his son (and successor) Jay, the museum assures us, were “great men.” I can’t say that I really know anything about the Hormels, but to judge by the sizable photos of the men in their natty old-time business garb, I’d say they were steely-eyed bastards of the sort who kept their business as tightly controlled as Spam is tightly packed. It’s the main way to build a multimillion-dollar business, after all.

Elsewhere were cans of Spam through the years with changing labels, a puppet show illustrating the coining of “Spam,” a video about the singing Hormel Girls, an amazing collection of Spam print and video ads, a radio studio in which you can hear Spam jingles, a map showing where all the Spam factories are, a moving conveyor belt near ceiling carrying about 800 cans of Spam, and that isn’t the half of it.

There was also a Spam timeline, and the ’80s strike got a brief mention there. Just when I thought that Hormel was going to ignore Monty Python out of embarrassment, I turned a corner to find that the last exhibit before the gift shop was devoted to the skit. There was a video screen, of course, and you could play the skit on demand. I did, since I hadn’t seen it in about 30 years.

I’d forgotten pretty much everything about it, except the endless selections of Spam on the menu, and the chorus, which is all too easy to remember: Spam Spam Spam Spam… Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam! Spam Spam Spam Spam… I’d completely forgotten, for instance, that it was Vikings who expressed their love for Spam, but now that I think about it, that fits a Minnesota company, eh? (Though I suspect the Python men were just being absurd.)

No mention of spam as an Internet noun (and verb). Maybe I just missed it, but certainly Hormel couldn’t be happy about that.

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