AUSTIN, Minn. — Just minutes before Jerry Dahlback won Friday's Spam-o-Rama Cook-Off with his Spam Mexican Bake casserole of chili, Bisquick, cheese and, of course, Spam, protesters salted heavily among the spectators in front of the J. C. Penney store at OakPark Mall began hooting.
"Cram your Spam," they shouted with distaste. Some wore T-shirts with the same motto. It was not a criticism of the microwaved Spambinos, Spamuffins and Spam eggs au gratin that were among the losing recipes.
Labor strife has hung over this southeastern Minnesota town ever since hundreds of meatpackers lost their jobs last year at the end of a bitter 13-month strike against the Geo. A. Hormel Co., Austin's main employer.
Feared Mystery Meat
The mood of the former strikers was not improved when business leaders decided to turn this year's Independence Day celebrations into a weekend-long 50th anniversary salute to Spam, the famed and--to many a GI--feared pinkish mystery meat molded here by Hormel for the last half century.
Unemployed union activists thought the Spam festival in poor taste and threatened to disrupt the parades, fireworks, air show and Jaycees Spam 'n' Cakes breakfast planned to fete the city's main claim to fame.
"Austin has not healed and won't begin to heal until 850 people get their jobs back," said Barb Collette, a spokeswoman for a group of fired strikers.
Mayor's Home Sprayed
Collette promised that the protests would not turn violent. But Chamber of Commerce officials said some events would be heavily guarded, and police reported that there recently had been a pair of tire slashings and that graffiti linked to the strike had been sprayed on the home of Mayor John O'Rourke.
Linda Mahoney, wife of the local newspaper editor, who is sponsoring some of the events, said the couple received an anonymous threatening phone call on Thursday.
Protesters handed out leaflets contending that "serious health hazards and human suffering are packed in every can" of the spicy, salty ham byproduct, and one Washington-based consumer group used the occasion Friday to denounce Spam, which is made of ham and pork shoulder, for "clogging up America's arteries" with fat, salts and preservatives.
"Spam is the perfect food to promote heart disease and raise blood cholesterol," said Michael Jacobsen, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
4 Billion Cans
Much ridicule has been heaped on Spam over the years, but it has proved a hardy meat able to take whatever is dished out. Last year, the 4 billionth can was packed. Hormel spokesman Alan Krejci said the company has been swamped of late with requests for Spam T-shirts, cutting boards and aprons.
"It's fun to make fun of Spam," he acknowledged. "But it's solid. It's a lot like the community here. It's steady and traditional."
During World War II, the Allied forces were fed Spam--short for spiced ham--"with a vengeance," according to company literature. GIs called it a ham that failed its physical. The late President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander in Europe, once joked that he had gotten so sick of Spam that he considered sending planes to bomb Austin.
Spam has become the butt of jokes by the Monty Python comedy troupe, creators of a well-known skit about a restaurant that specializes in Spam, and, more recently, by David Letterman, who hawks a mock Spam-on-a-rope for people who get hungry in the shower.
Despite the protests, many Austinites were clearly enjoying the product that has fattened the city's economy for 50 years. The local McDonald's had special Spam McMuffins on the menu. A local artist unveiled a portrait of Austin resting on a can of Spam. Hormel's corporate contribution was a display in the mall resembling two huge "50s" made out of 2,700 Spam cans, each with an additional 10,468 cans forming the base.
"I hope Spam lasts 100 years," declared Hormel President Richard Knowlton as Friday's cook-off judging began. It should. The company claims the product has an indefinite shelf life.
The cook-off was just one of many Spam-related contests scheduled for the weekend. On Sunday, for example, there will be a five-mile "hog jog" run. When asked why the race was shorter than the usual 10 kilometers, or six miles, Krejci explained: "We're talking about people who eat Spam; we don't want to push their endurance limits."
One event--a treasure hunt contest for a hidden gold Spam medallion worth $100--has apparently gone awry. Union members said they found the medallion and will not give it back.