Hail, Mighty SPAM!

There will be rapture in Austin, Minn. In less than two weeks, the 6 billionth can of SPAM will roll off the assembly line, and there's nothing snobbish culinary purists can do to stop it.

Sure, to many folks, SPAM is a joke, immortalized in Monty Python routines. But that doesn't mean the all-American mystery meat doesn't taste great, or so some say.

The modern-day obsession with health — the Tofuization of America — has taken much of the fun out of eating. "The land of the sugar-free and the home of the bland" might be an appropriate kicker as the Fourth of July holiday approaches.

But in Austin, better known in some circles as SPAMtown USA, the folks are acutely aware of the awesome, salt-laden, nitrate-packed power of canned pig meat. Pink Pleasures for the Palate

Go to any SPAM party — a SPAMboree, if you will — and you will see America's fat-laden traditions honored in true fashion. What other luncheon meat is immortalized in song, tossed for distance, and sculpted into art, while being eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner? And there will be many such events this summer.

SPAM parties are perhaps the only adult gatherings where guests are expected — even encouraged — to play with their food. You haven't seen it all until you've seen a SPAM rendering of Stonehenge. Modeled to scale. And edible.

For the true believers, the day begins with SPAMbled eggs and launches into a SPAMorama of blackened SPAMfish, Greek SPAMikopita, SPAM etoufée and other dishes to keep the plates — and the palates — pink. You can wash all that down with SPAM wine and top it off with SPAMoni sorbet.

"I must say I've had the SPAM brownies," says Shawn Radford, curator of Austin's SPAM Museum, which celebrated its opening last weekend with a dedication from Tom Brokaw. The NBC anchor wrote about SPAM's unique role as chow for Allied soldiers in World War II in his book The Greatest Generation.

That war generated a huge sales boost for SPAM-maker Hormel Foods, which provided 15 million cans to the military. From 1939 to 1942, the company's overall sales doubled to almost $120 million.

These days, Hormel boasts $4.1 billion in sales and the blue-and-yellow SPAM logo is now is trademarked in more than 100 countries. It's canned in Britain, Denmark, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, where it's considered a delicacy to be served with a fine wine.

"One reason SPAM is popular in developing countries is a reason it was popular in America years ago — it doesn't require refrigeration," says Radford. "But even in other countries, it finds a place."

Inside the SPAM Museum, fans will find plenty to absorb. A 430-foot conveyor belt rattles around the ceiling, carrying about 850 cans of SPAM. Visitors can take a SPAM exam or can their own SPAM (not the real stuff). There's also a radio station — KSPAM — and a video screen that shows classic Monty Python skits slamming SPAM.

A SPAM-o-Meter tallies the cans of SPAM produced. Hormel expects to turn out its 6 billionth sometime between June 29 and July 3.

"It's inevitable at this point," says Radford. "But it's still a big deal."

With the world on the cusp of such a milestone, it's time to reflect upon the noble place SPAM occupies in U.S. history. Its rise parallels the geopolitical trajectory of the United States itself.

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