When it comes to American icons, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I love the Statue of Liberty, the Corn Palace, bluegrass, and blue jeans. I love cheeseburgers, in Paradise or otherwise, and I’ve always appreciated 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; my mother spent her days helping the war effort by riveting aircraft. She enjoyed the work, trusted her partner, and regaled us for years with her stories of Hellcats, nose cones, and turrets.
When she was feeling especially nostalgic, she’d pull out her recording of “Rosie the Riveter,” a song composed by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb and released in 1943 by Paramount Music Corporation of New York.
Even after my parents moved back to Iowa, Mom kept a cherished copy of Rockwell’s Post cover in her cedar chest, and a torn-out image of his 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 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 it happened, Mom was both wrong and right. The “We Can Do It!” poster, produced a year earlier than Rockwell’s cover, did become the most iconic of the Rosie images. On the other hand, as Westinghouse historian Ed Reis noted in 2003:
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 admire her air of insoucience, her obvious competence and strength. As a child, astonished by her brilliant red hair, I envied her freedom to roll up her sleeves and eat with a dirty face, and I hardly could believe that no one made her cut the sandwich she was clutching into lady-like halves.
In my child’s mind, that sandwich became our point of connection. Accustomed to grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly, one of my greatest treats was a “Spamwich” — SPAM® sliced thin and fried crisp, served on white bread with a little mayo. I couldn’t imagine anyone refusing a Spamwich, and and I imagined that Rosie would have preferred a Spamwich, too, even though the role of SPAM® in World War II left many veterans distinctly ambivalent about the product, and I don’t remember anyone saying, “Hey! C’mon over and we’ll fry up some SPAM®!”
Over the years, SPAM® became a bit of a joke — shorthand for all that was low-brow, low-cost, and low-quality. Thanks to its extended shelf life, it continued to be tucked into hurricane supplies, stowed in the galleys of cruising boats, or stacked on the shelves of deer lease cabins, but it rarely was eaten. For all practical purposes, SPAM® disappeared from my life.
Then, I traveled to Minnesota.
In Minnesota, food and folklore mesh. The Jolly Green Giant lives in Blue Earth, a community surrounded by rich farmland and canneries devoted to beans, corn, and peas that bear the Giant’s likeness on their labels.
Just up the road in Bemidji, the Great Blue Ox named Babe still is 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 knowing waitress suggested one breakfast might do for us all. It did, although I suspect she added some extra bacon.
After a hearty breakfast, there’s no reason for today’s travelers not to head over to Austin, Minnesota and visit 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 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 pays tribute to those who gave their lives for the sake of potted meat.
Inside the museum, galleries of early photographs show the earliest days of the George Hormel “Provision Market.” Hormel entered the business world as a traveling wool and hide buyer. Eggs, wool, poultry, and hides helped to keep his company in business while their trade in meat products was being developed.
As the business grew, product lines expanded and the Hormel name was imprinted on far more than slabs of bacon and salt-cured hams.
Technological advances meant that new forms of processing and packaging soon were being sold along with the food itself.
As the business continued to grow, advertising campaigns became more sophisticated; Hormel was one of the first to seek out celebrities willing to endorse their products.
Over the years, SPAM® permeated 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®?
After roaming the museum for an hour, I found myself wishing there had been a little café devoted to all things SPAM®. A sliced and fried spamwich is fine as far as it goes, but what about Chicken-fried SPAM®? SPAM® Flautas? Scalloped SPAM®? or the mysterious but strangely appealing SPAM®-alama-Ding-Dongs?
All these dishes and more were served at SPAMARAMA, a years-long tradition in Austin, Texas. Even The Smithsonian loved SPAMARAMA, sending videographers to catch the action for their series, America: Wild and Wacky.
After a twelve-year hiatus, SPAMARAMA returned to Austin last month as news swirled about the introduction of a new version of the canned meat: Pumpkin Spice SPAM®. Once publicized by Hormel as a joke, it’s no joke today; the product will be introduced on September 23 and, if the rumors are true, the advertising slogan will be, “Pumpkin Spice: If it’s good enough for STARBUCKS®, it’s good enough for SPAM®.”
Since my visit to the Museum, I haven’t begun serving up SPAM® on a regular basis. Still, since 1937 this quintessentially American food has continued to feed 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’m still not sure whether I’ll try Pumpkin Spice SPAM®, but I might. The company’s already given us jalapeno, garlic, chorizo, turkey, teriyaki, and Portuguese sausage varieties; this latest update might be as good as the classic.