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SPAM AT 50 : Plaudits, Protests for Popular Canned Lunch Meat

July 09, 1987|GREG SOKOLOWSKI | Sokolowski is a Los Angeles Times Magazine copy editor

AUSTIN, Minn. — "You mean there's a Spam air show too?" a woman outside the OakPark Mall asked, pointing toward the bright Midwestern sky. "What are they gonna do? Drop cans of the stuff on us?"

Welcome to Austin, Minn., land of 10,000 Spam recipes, and home last week to a four-day 50th birthday party for Spam, America's maligned canned-pork icon.

"We intended this festival--and please call it 'Cedar River Days Salutes 50 Years of Spam,' not just 'Spam Days'--to be a local, family event," said Sharon Piller, executive director of the Austin Visitors & Convention Bureau. "We wanted to make sure city residents had a little something to do in Austin over the Fourth of July weekend . . . so they'd stick around town."

A little something to do, indeed. The Independence Day weekend saw this southeastern Minnesota town of 26,000 host Mickey and Minnie Mouse (the official , direct-from-Disneyland mice), two parades, tractor pulls, air shows, a carnival midway and a circus. And if those summer-festival standbys weren't enough, the curious Austinite could watch one of six television news crews (including one from MTV) or an Academy Award-winning documentary film maker or reporters from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press or United Press International--all diligently covering Spam.

Born here at Geo. A. Hormel & Co. half a century ago, Spam is produced by the Austin-based meatpacker at the rate of 435 cans per minute. With more than 80 million pounds sold last year, the pink luncheon meat in the blue-and-yellow tin gave many in Austin, hard hit by a recent 13-month strike at Hormel that cost hundreds their jobs, something to celebrate.

And for an increasingly serious culinary world, Spam's golden year provided another important treat: plenty of fun.

"There have always been quite a few laughs over Spam . . . in good taste, of course," said Hormel spokesman Allan Krejci. "I mean, we've been kidded by Monty Python and David Letterman. Can you buy that sort of publicity?"

While Hormel's press kit excerpts Monty Python's sketch of a couple who visit a restaurant where every dish is made with Spam, one suspects that the meatpacker may have toyed with the idea of test-marketing Letterman's Spam-on-a-Rope "for those who get hungry in the shower." Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson has even created the Spamalope, a beast with a suspiciously familiar rectangular body.

Just after 1 p.m. on this warm, sunny Friday, though, things were getting serious in the central atrium of the OakPark Mall, site of the Spam-O-Rama Cookoff. About 350 spectators, some of them wearing the "Cram Your Spam" T-shirts favored by jobless, former union activists protesting the whole event, had gathered in front of J. C. Penney to watch the judges taste Ena Rugg's broccoli Spam casserole, Ruth Cambern's cheesy Spam ole and the other eight contending recipes.

"We're here to wipe the smug smile off the (Hormel backers') faces," said Kathy Buck, former financial secretary of United Food and Commercial Workers Local P-9, the group that had organized the strike against Hormel. "This is the Fourth of July, and it just seems like a terrible way to celebrate liberty."

The cook-off was not advertised nationally, according to Mike Mahoney, publisher of the Austin Daily Herald, co-sponsor of the cook-off. Mahoney thought his paper ". . . might be inundated with thousands and thousands of recipes. We actually received over 300, mostly local, entries.

"I haven't announced this yet, but I just got a call from CBS," said Mahoney. "The winner is going to be flown to Washington to appear on CBS' 'Nightwatch.' "

In addition to talking Spam on national television, the winner would take home a Las Vegas vacation for two--and, yes, a year's supply of the legendary canned meat.

"We finally figured out how much a year's supply of Spam is," Piller said, directing finalist Phyllis House and her Spam eggs au gratin entry to a place at the contestants' table. "Six cases of 24 cans each. That's 2.7 cans per week. We'll adjust the amount if the winner really starts eating a lot of Spam," Piller said with a smile.

Although nine of the 10 finalists were women, it was the lone male, Jerry Dahlback, a local computer installer and former Hormel employee, who took first prize. His Spam Mexican bake--made from Bisquick, chili, cheese and the requisite potted meat--was the unanimous choice of judges Vonnie Snyder, an Austin nutritionist; Kermit Watts, owner of the Peppermill, a local restaurant; and John Myers, a chef from Austin, Tex.

As Mahoney presented Dahlback with his 144 cans of Spam, about 60 ex-Hormel strikers began chanting "Uncle Sam, not Spam!" and "Cram your Spam!"

Pro-Hormel spectators countered with applause and cheers, as they would all weekend.

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