When it comes to American icons, I’m a traditionalist. I love the Statue of Liberty, the Corn Palace, bluegrass and blue jeans. And yes, I’m fond of Norman Rockwell’s illustrations, particularly his portrayal of Rosie the Riveter.
When Rosie appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, my parents were living in the Quad Cities. Dad worked at John Deere, while my mother spent her days helping the war effort by riveting aircraft. She took great satisfaction in the work, trusted her partner, and always enjoyed telling stories about Hellcats, nose cones and turrets.
Even after my parents moved back to Iowa and her work at the factory ended, she kept a cherished copy of the Post in her cedar chest and a torn-out image of Rosie tucked between some books in the den. When Hillary Clinton adapted the better-known “We can Do It” poster for her Presidential campaign, Mom wasn’t happy. “That’s just not right, for them to call her Rosie,” she’d say. “That’s not the real Rosie. I’ve got Rosie’s picture in my closet.”
As so often happens, Mom was both wrong and right. The “We Can Do It!” poster, produced a year earlier than Rockwell’s cover, became the most iconic of the Rosie images. On the other hand, when Westinghouse historian Ed Reis was interviewed in 2003, he said:
“For the past 60 years, the popular image of the World War II-era female worker in the “We Can Do It” poster has evoked strength and empowerment. The American public identified the image as “Rosie the Riveter,” named for the women who were popping rivets on the West Coast, making bombers and fighters for aeronautical companies like Boeing.
But history tells a different story. In 1942, the Westinghouse Corporation, in conjunction with the War Production Coordinating Committee, commissioned [J. Howard Miller, a Pittsburgh artist] to create a series of posters for the war effort. He based his “We Can Do It!” poster on a United Press photograph taken of Michigan factory worker Geraldine Hoff Doyle.
It was to be displayed for only two weeks in Westinghouse factories in the Midwest where women were making helmet liners. They made 13 million plastic helmet liners out of a material called Mycarta, the predecessor to Formica (which means “formerly Mycarta”). So, more aptly named, this woman is Molly the Mycarta Molder or Helen the Helmet Liner Maker.”
Historical complexities aside, Rockwell’s Rosie – modeled after Mary Doyle Keefe of Arlington, Vermont – always has been my favorite. Today, I love her air of insoucience, her obvious competence and strength. As a child, I noticed other things. I was astonished by her brilliant red hair. I envied her freedom to roll up her sleeves and eat with a dirty face, and I was amazed that no one made her cut the sandwich she was clutching into lady-like halves.
That sandwich was the point of connection between us. In my world of grilled cheese and peanut butter, one of the greatest treats conceivable was a “Spamwich”, and I knew beyond any doubt Rosie was eating SPAM®. Sliced thin and fried crisp, served up on Wonder Bread with a little mayo or mustard, it seemed the best sandwich in the world. I couldn’t imagine anyone, child or adult, choosing to eat anything else. To put it another way, an iconic American worker deserved an iconic sandwich, and while the role of SPAM® in World War II had made some veterans distinctly ambivalent about the product, there’s no question it had become an icon.
Over the years, SPAM® lost some of its status, becoming a bit of a joke, shorthand for all that was low-brow, low-cost and low-quality. No one said, “Hey! C’mon over and we’ll fry up some SPAM®!” Given its shelf life, it still was tucked into hurricane supplies and stowed in boat galleys as an insurance policy, but it rarely was eaten. For all practical purposes, SPAM® disappeared from my life.
Until I traveled to Minnesota.
Minnesota’s an interesting place, a place where food and folklore seem inextricably meshed. The Jolly Green Giant lives in Blue Earth, a community surrounded by rich farmland and canneries devoted to beans, corn and peas.
Just up the road in Bemidji, you can find a great Blue Ox named Babe hanging out with his friend, Paul Bunyan. I first met the pair when I was about ten years old and barely came up to Paul’s knee. The next morning, when I begged my parents to let me order the “Lumberjack Breakfast” at a local diner, a very wise waitress suggested one breakfast might do for all of us. It did, although I suspect the cook might have added some extra bacon.
After breakfast, there’s no reason not to take the advice of the Austin, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and head on over to the SPAM® Museum. As their website puts it,
“Few experiences in life are as meaningful and meaty-filled as those you’ll have at the magnificent SPAM® Museum. Referred to by some meat historians as The Guggenham, Porkopolis or M.O.M.A. (Museum Of Meat-Themed Awesomeness), the SPAM® Museum is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of spiced pork artifacts.”
“Spiced pork artifacts” may be one of the most terrifying phrases in the English language, but they have a lovely building and a nice sculpture out front that pays tribute to those who gave their lives for the sake of potted meat.
Inside the museum, the history of the company and the people behind it is told beautifully, with galleries of early photographs showing the earliest days of the George Hormel “Provision Market”. George Hormel had begun his business life as a traveling wool and hide buyer. Eggs, wool, poultry and hides helped to keep the company in business while their trade in meat products was being developed.
As the business grew, the product line expanded and the Hormel name was imprinted on far more than slabs of bacon and salt-cured hams.
Technological advances were part of the food industry, and it wasn’t long before new forms of processing and packaging were being sold along with the food itself.
With the advent of new advertising technologies, Hormel saw their opportunity and sought out celebrity spokespeople to help them expand their market share.
Over the years, SPAM® became ubiquitous, permeating Minnesota culture so deeply that even traditional handcrafts were adapted to help promote the product. What could be better than a quilt or wall hanging to remind you of the virtues of SPAM®?
By the time I’d roamed the museum for an hour, I found myself wishing for a little café devoted to all things SPAM®-ish. Sliced and fried is fine, as far as it goes, but what about Chicken-fried SPAM®, SPAM® Flautas, scalloped SPAM® and the mysterious but strangely appealing SPAM®-alama-Ding-Dongs, which sound suspiciously like dessert? All these dishes and more were served at SPAMARAMA, a thirty-year-long tradition in Austin, Texas that helped keep SPAM® in the spotlight and Austin weird. Even The Smithsonian loved them some SPAMARAMA, sending their videographers to catch the action for their series called America: Wild and Wacky.
Finally, for those who don’t know the story of how SPAM® became “spam”, the bane of internet users world-wide, it was Monty Python and the Flying Circus whose skit resulted in electronic junk mail being named after a canned meat product. In the skit, which lasts about two-and-a-half minutes, actors use the word SPAM® more than a hundred times.
It wasn’t long before internet users began labeling unwanted communication that was noisy, annoying and unrelentingly repetitious “spam”, and the name stuck. In 1998 the New Oxford Dictionary of English, which previously had defined “spam” only in relation to the trademarked food product, added a second definition to its entry for “spam”: ‘irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of newsgroups or users.”
Since my visit to the Museum, I haven’t begun serving up SPAM® on a regular basis, and I’ve grown even more obsessive about keeping spam out of my inbox. Still, since 1937 this quintessentially American food has been feeding soldiers and kids, college students, cruisers and struggling families. I still keep it in my hurricane supplies, and one of these nights I might just fry up some slices, nice and crisp. I’ll use whatever bread I have and add a dollop of mayo. In honor of Rosie I might even forego slicing my spamwich in half. I think it would add to the enjoyment and, after all, what good is an icon if you can’t enjoy it?