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Happy Birthday, Spam! America's favorite canned meat turns 75 (+video)

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Spam, the legendary canned meat whose very name invokes delight in some and queasiness in many more, turns 75 this month. The product’s parent company, Hormel Foods Corp., is celebrating with what it calls a “Spamtastic” birthday bash at the Spam manufacturing plant in Austin, Minn., complete with a headlining performance by the Temptations.

On the advertising front, Spam is marking the occasion by introducing its first-ever mascot – a stubby, mustachioed cartoon knight named Sir Can-A-Lot. Visit Spam’s surprisingly lush product website, and you can follow the little fellow on an animated journey through the Glorious Spam Tower and up into outer space, where you will be greeted by the knight in constellation form.

Sir Can-A-Lot is just the latest in long tradition of shrewd marketing moves for Spam, which seems to have thrived in the US more by poking gentle fun at itself than by actual taste (though enthusiasts in Hawaii and Asia might disagree).  Hormel first introduced the canned, processed lunch meat in 1937; the name “Spam” came from combining the words “spiced” and “ham.” Shortly thereafter, it became a staple of army diets during World War II, when an estimated 100 million pounds of Spam were shipped overseas to feed Allied troops. Many returned home without much enthusiasm for the stuff – real meat was hard to come by during the war, and low-cost Spam found its way into nearly every meal for the troops, who called it “ham that didn’t pass its physical.” Today, an estimated 3.8 cans of Spam are eaten every second in the United States – even if we don't always like to admit it.

The same can’t be said for parts of Asia and Hawaii, where Spam is hugely – and, unironically – popular. Residents of Hawaii, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands eat the most Spam per capita in the US and its territories.  Burger King and McDonald’s locations in Hawaii both feature Spam on their menus, and Spam musubi – a sort of spam in sushi form, paired with white rice and wrapped in seaweed – is a signature dish of the islands. You can also get certain varieties of Spam in these regions that you won’t find in the mainland US, including Honey Spam, Spam with bacon, and Hot and Spicy Spam (with Tabasco sauce).

Seven billion cans of Spam have been manufactured worldwide as of 2007, but its image in the States is still that of an unappetizing, indestructible mystery meat – a throwback to the Twinkie-dominated era of midcentury non-perishables that have gone largely out of fashion today. Spam even had its own Rockettes-style dance troupe for a time after World War II, the Hormel Girls. Made up of former G.I. women, the group toured around the country promoting Spam and even had a short-lived radio show.

But the canned meat may have gone the way of the Twinkie (parent company Hostess filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year) if not for the British sketch comedy troupe Monty Python. Their classic “Spam” sketch features a woman unsuccessfully trying to avoid Spam on a diner’s breakfast menu (the word “Spam” even badgers its way into the ending credits). The sketch is credited with popularizing the term “spam” for unwanted emails. (Hormel tried to fight this as trademark infringement initially, but eventually just requested that email “spam” remained lowercase.) Hormel has embraced the Monty Python connection, lending Spam’s name and corporate sponsorship to the hit 2004 musical, “Spamalot.” The new knight mascot, too, seems inspired by that show, a remake of the 1975 classic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Spam’s tradition of loving self-deprecation continues, if sometimes reluctantly. In 2001, Hormel opened an expansive Spam musem at the Austin, Minn, manufacturing plant location, where, in addition to canning Spam in a mock assembly line and eating at an all-Spam restaurant, you can screen Monty Python sketches. Another big facet of Spam’s popularity is state fairs, many of which hold Spam recipe contests. The annual “Spamarama” held every April Fool’s Day in Austin, Texas, has a contest with the objective of coming up with a way to make Spam edible, and one suspects that’s the unspoken goal of many other such contests.

And Hormel doesn't always take the Spam bashing in stride. In 2006, the company threatened to sue a local Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands  newspaper for articles decrying Spam, which has a very high salt content, as having adverse effects on the local population.

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Still, if it continues selling at its current rate (122 million can per year, according to Hormel), Spam will roll out its 8 billionth can in two years or so. So while many of us may love Spam solely for its joke potential, many more love it honestly, and have for three quarters of a century.

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