Spam: A Slice of Americana

For the makers of Spam, it was déjà vu all over again as the millennium wound down.

Sales of the pink luncheon meat in the familiar blue rectangular can with yellow lettering spiked on worries about the breakdown of civilization.

The boom in Spam sales helped Hormel Foods Corp. to record earnings in fiscal 2000 and called to mind Spam's early days, circa the late 1930s and early 1940s, when rural Americans stocked up on pork in a tin that didn't need refrigeration and GIs fighting to liberate Europe encountered Spam in their rations, day after day after day.

But life in the new millennium proceeded pretty much as usual. What that meant is Spam sales returned to earth and Hormel's first-quarter earnings fell 5.3 percent from the year-earlier pace, dropping from $43.8 million to $41.5 million.

What would you do with Y2K surpluses of Spam?

Not that the people at Austin, Minn.-based Hormel are worried. Hormel has managed to appeal to a new generation of consumers by presenting Spam as a contemporary food while cultivating Spam's cultural niche as a campy icon.

The canned pork is the subject of thousands of poems, several Web sites, a handful of books and a classic skit by Monty Python's Flying Circus, the British comedy troupe.

‘This Enigmatic Porcine Muse’

John Nagamichi Cho, for instance, maintains the Spam Haiku Archive on the World Wide Web "so that anyone who comes under the influence of this enigmatic porcine muse can share his or her poetic epiphany with the rest of the world."

Cho, a researcher at MIT, doesn't eat Spam. But he likes its dual appeal as a venerable lunch loaf with a prominent historical role and as a slice of Americana that people love to mock as a relic of a polyester time gone by.

"People who write about Spam are two different breeds," Cho said. "Its built-in irony appeals to creative types who like to write poetry, [many of whom] have a nostalgic, love-hate memory of Spam.

"And there's a younger generation that views Spam as anachronistic — 'Who needs canned meat these days, anyway; there's too much salt and fat.' They view it with amusement that it's still around."

Cho has posted 17,000 submissions on his haiku site, adding about 10 a day.

"Slow down," she whispered, now guiding my trembling hands, "Turn the key slowly."

One of the First Convenience Foods

Carolyn Wyman wrote an entire book: Spam: A Biography. She's eaten Spam most of her life and likes it. A lot.

"Spam is arguably the most interesting product in the supermarket," said Wyman, who writes a syndicated food column, Supermarket Sampler. "People are fascinated with it; it's truly a part of the culture … one of the first convenience foods."

Wyman credits Hormel with keeping Spam moving off grocers' shelves with clever marketing. "It's not your usual pork-brain image," she said. "It's contemporary and fun."

Spam's longevity defies the conventional wisdom that Americans scorn processed food that comes in a can, "compressed into a perfect block that's like nothing in nature," Wyman said.

"Spam is American food," she said. "It's fatty, with salt and sugar. It belongs with hamburgers, hot dogs and ice cream."

The Internet helped Spam bridge the divide between the Depression and World War II vets whose food choices were limited and a new generation of consumers, Wyman said. Many early adopters of computer technology were huge fans of Monty Python, which performed a Spam sketch set in a café. A man and his wife enter and she tries to order a meal that doesn't include Spam, without success.

Before long, unsolicited and unwanted e-mail became known as spam.

500 Pounds of Spam for Lunch

Hormel isn't crazy about the term, said spokeswoman Mary Harris. But the company is smart enough to realize that Spam is more than food. When you've got kitsch, sell kitsch.

The company is building a Spam museum in Austin at the site of a former Kmart. It's set to open this fall. Visitors will be able to trace the history of Spam, beginning in 1937, buy Spam memorabilia and eat Spamburgers in the adjacent restaurant.

The company also sponsors Spam cookoffs at 77 county fairs. It manages a Spam fan club that provides members with recipes and news about fellow canned pork lovers, such as the former North Dakota college professor who figures he ate a quarter-ton of Spam for lunch over a 20-year academic career.

Hormel continues to try to snag new customers with new products, such as Spam oven roasted turkey that comes in a rectangular can.

"Spam has a great value as a trademark," Harris said, acknowledging that the turkey product contains no pork and is being marketed as a lean cuisine.

Wyman marvels that the Spam name continues to work magic in the marketplace. "People would never name a product Spam today," she said. "It almost screams 'I am like ham but I'm not ham.'"

But it works for Spam.

"It's not just a food," Wyman said. "It's bigger than that."