Do Not Put This In Your Junk Folder: The SPAM Museum

Spammy

A Museum Devoted to Spam? Are You Spitting Me?

Austin, Minnesota is not Austin, Texas. Tornado-prone and the site of occasional flooding, Austin, Minnesota is the home of the headquarters of the Hormel Foods Corporation, with its brands running the gamut from Dinty Moore (beef stew) to Cure 81 ham to Jennie-O turkey products to Chi-Chi’s salsa to Muscle Milk sports nutrition (Hormel purchased CytoSport). But perhaps no brand or product is as familiar as SPAM, the canned (tinned to Brits) pork found in many a home’s pantry. Whether you love it or hate it (and I tend to fall closer to the “hate” side of the SPAM-tinuum), it’s hard to deny the weird appeal of this stuff. Introduced in 1937, this canned meat helped sustain troops in World War II and stretched the food budgets of many families. Today SPAM is sold in many countries around the world. Additionally, you can find myriad varieties of SPAM—Classic, Chorizo, Lite, Jalapeno, and Teriyaki are but some.

SpamMuseum

Which brings me to the SPAM Museum. Located in Austin, practically across the street from Hormel, the museum is Hormel’s tribute to an iconic product and its fans. The admission is free, but you’ll probably depart with your precious Benjamins in the gift shop. Upon entering, you are greeted by an employee who really, really, really LOVES his or her job. Apparently, these workers are called “Spambassadors”, though I prefer to use the term “Spamdroids”. Anyway, the staff is very friendly and they give you a printed guide to the museum, as well as recipe cards. And a couple of them also wander around with trays like waiters at a catered event: Would you care to try our classic SPAM? Would you care to try our chorizo SPAM?

SpamLobby

The lobby features a sort of homage to the global reach of SPAM, with a background made of SPAM cans. A movie theatre can be found there, with surprisingly well designed doors that resemble a cartoon pig; inside the theatre, you can watch a reel of what must be every commercial for the stuff ever created.

SpamMuseumDoor

Ooh, Tell Me More!

The museum itself tells the history of Hormel and SPAM—from its beginnings in 1891 to its current global reach. There are some hands-on activities for museum guests, such as a timed “pack your own can of SPAM” interactive display; a register will tell you how many cans were packed in the factory during the time it took you to pack a single one. For the record, it took me about 34 seconds to package a single can of SPAM, during which time over 230 cans were packed at the plant. I would suck as a Hormel employee, apparently. Anyway, the museum tour finishes with a screen playing the famous Monty Python SPAM skit. Then it’s on to the gift shop, where you can buy all sorts of SPAMables—baseball caps, beer koozies, mugs, kids’ toys, iPhone cases, even mints (not SPAM-flavored). Of course, you can buy cans of SPAM as well. I think the staff was a little disappointed because I only bought two packs of mints.

Spam Bucket Hat

Above image from the Spam Museum Gift Shop page

Recipes?

I will not be posting any SPAM recipes, as I don’t really eat the stuff. However, if you do, you can find some recipes here. Despite not being a fan of the stuff, the museum itself was fascinating (though they do conveniently gloss over any mention of CAFOs—confined animal feedlot operations.) And the staff are super-friendly and helpful. It’s pretty easy to get there, as it’s just off I-90. But I wound up returning just to get directions to US-218 South (I was heading to Iowa City next), which was considerably more difficult. Fortunately, the nice parking attendant gave me detailed directions (and noted that the return to 218 was “tricky”.) Would I recommend this place? Sure—it’s for anyone who delights in the quirky!

Bad News, Sad News

If you want to visit the SPAM Museum, you’ll have to wait until next spring (2016). It’s being renovated and moving to a new location in downtown Austin, Minnesota. So, readers, let the anticipation build up until you get a chance to visit the new and hopefully improved SPAM Museum!

SpamLobbyUpClose

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Saying “No” to Monsanto et al: Cedar Grove Cheese and rBGH-free Cheese

What is rBGH?

The term rBGH stands for recombinant bovine growth hormone, a piece of lab-produced genetic engineering that spurs lactating cows to increase their milk production, often with some nasty side effects. The “recombinant” comes from a particular DNA technology that permitted this hormone to be synthesized in the lab. Initial approval for this hormone was granted to Monsanto, although other companies (e.g. Eli Lilly) also produced this hormone.

The Controversy

One of the most controversial aspects of treating cows with rBGH concerns its linkage to increased episodes of mastitis, in which the udders become inflamed. This causes the cows not only serious pain, but it can also be fatal (though this is not typical). Additionally, while negative effects on humans have not been definitively proven, the potential for adverse health effects on humans has led many countries to ban rBGH, including Canada, Japan, Australia, Argentina, and the European Union countries.

Enter Cedar Grove Cheese

Truck

Located in the small town of Plain, Wisconsin, amid the hills and valleys of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, Cedar Grove Cheese has been producing rBGH-free cheese since 1993. In fact, Cedar Grove was the first cheese producer in the United States to insist on rBGH-free milk from the farmers it purchases its milk from. The farmers have pledged to meet this criterion and all Cedar Grove cheeses are rBGH-free.

Cedar Grove’s health and environmental passions are evident in ways beyond rBGH-free cheese. Their wastewater is treated by something called a “Living Machine”, which combines plants and microbes to cleanse the water so that it can be safely let into nearby Honey Creek. From the Cedar Grove Cheese website:

LivingMachine

The Living Machine

The Living Machine is designed to be a working ecosystem. It uses natural microbes and a collection of hydroponic plants. Washwater is biologically processed back into clean water that is discharged into Honey Creek.

The Cedar Grove Cheese washwater comes from cleaning milk trucks, tanks and cheese making equipment. This includes the pasteurizer, cheese vats and cream separator. This water contains soaps and chlorinated, acidic and caustic cleaners, and some cheese particles, milk and whey.

The washwater is collected and mixed in an underground 6,000-gallon equalization tank outside the factory. The Living Machine handles an average of 7,000 gallons of washwater per day.

It takes 3 to 4 days for water to travel through this system. Each tank extends four feet below gravel level, and holds approximately 2,600 gallons. Tanks are connected by 4 inch pipes a foot beneath the gravel. Water flows through the plant by gravity.

The water first flows through closed aerobic tanks, where bacteria and other tiny organisms begin to break down the residues and particles. The next tanks add wetland plants, whose roots trail in the water and provide a new ecosystem for more diverse microbial populations. The plants also use the nutrients in the water to grow. After this process, the solids are allowed to settle. Much of this residue is used to fertilize fields. The remaining clear water is run through filters several more times before flowing into nearby Honey Creek.

The Living Machine uses a natural process in washwater treatment. It is able to remove 99% of the biological oxygen demand, 98% of the suspended solids, 93% of total nitrogen and 57% of phosphorus.

The Cheeses

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Cedar Grove produces a variety of cheeses, with many of them being familiar varieties (e.g. Colby, Havarti, Monterey Jack). You can find these listed on their website. These are traditional cheeses, ones that most consumers would be aware of. I’ve sampled some of these when I visited and they are tasty. But Cedar Grove also produces artisan cheeses!

Ah, the artisanal varieties of Cedar Grove’s cheeses. Interestingly, not all are made from cows’ milk! Their Banquo, Fleance, Montague, Donatello, and Feta are sheep milk cheeses. They make both a goat milk cheddar AND Capriko, which is a cheddar-style cheese incorporating both goat and cow milks. But that’s not all! Cedar Grove even produces a water buffalo cheese, the water buffalo mozzarella!

I Curd It Through the Grapevine

Okay, prior to my visit to Wisconsin last summer, I’d never actually had cheese curds. Cheese curds are a product of cheddar-making (and cheddaring itself is a type of process used in making cheddar cheese). Remember the Little Miss Muffett nursery rhyme, where she’s “eating her curds and whey”? Curds form when a coagulant is added to the milk, which causes a separation of the whey and the solid curd. These particular curds are basically fresh cheddar cheese before it is removed and processed into blocks or slabs. Well, Cedar Grove sells a variety of curds (very fresh!—if you get them at a supermarket, they are likely fairly old). And they sell flavored varieties. I decided to make a lunch of cheese curds (hey, I was in Wisconsin), so I bought the Tomato and Basil variety. Let me tell you, these things are mighty addictive. I pulled over at a rest stop along I-90 in Minnesota to eat my curds (I’d bought a pound) and half of that bag disappeared entirely TOO quickly.

Anyway, this blog post serves as your introduction to Flyover Country’s Cedar Grove Cheese, as well as providing some insight into their role in providing consumers with rBGH-free cheeses. Go to their website or, even better, stop by for a visit!

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All Cherries Considered

Cherry Republic Welcome

Cherry Republic—Not Found in Your Rand McNally Atlas!

Or at least all cherry products are considered. In the middle of the charming Michigan town of Glen Arbor, you’ll find a (semi) sovereign state: Cherry Republic. How can that be, you ask. It’s bounded all around by the state of Michigan. Why would there be a country in the middle of another one? Granted, there are historic precedents—look at a map of South Africa and you’ll see the independent state of Lesotho embedded within. But in the United States?

What Kind of a Country Is This, Anyway?

Okay, Cherry Republic isn’t exactly like other states.1 It has no government, no military, no treaties with other states. It lacks a currency, a foreign policy, a population, an anthem. But what it DOES have is every manner of cherry product. It has an ice cream parlor/café featuring various cheese-themed ice cream flavors. Seriously, every ice cream flavor features cherries! It has a Cherry Spitting Arena. And, if you can’t make it to Glen Arbor, it has a website.

CherrySpittingArena

CherrySpittingRules

The History (Not in a Nutshell, but in a Cherry Pit)

Bob Sunderland, the founder (emperor?) of Cherry Republic began in 1989 by selling tee shirts and, later, the Boomchunka cherry oatmeal cookie (very good!) from the trunk of his car. Eventually, he branched out into other cherry products. Admirably, the company engages in supporting local cherry farmers. And why just cherries? Well, read below (this has been taken directly from Cherry Republic’s website)

But Bob’s 83-year-old mother has another view of why he started a company that only sells cherries. It’s on a t-shirt that she wears when she works at Cherry Republic. It says, “The owner is a simpleton. Selling more than one fruit would be too complicated for him.”

Cherry Republic grew and now has not only the “headquarters” in Glen Arbor, but it is also located in Traverse City and Charlevoix (in Northern Michigan). An outpost is found in Ann Arbor as well. Given that the tart cherry capital of the United States is Michigan, it’s no wonder that Cherry Republic took off here!

Cherry Republic Pop on Ice

The Wares

So, what kinds of cherry things does Cherry Republic offer? There’s the expected: dried cherries (Montmorency and Balaton), canned organic cherries, cherry pie filling. There’s the delightful: cherry-based trail mix, cherry jams, chocolate-covered cherries. And then there’s the deliciously unusual: cherry peanut butter, cherry salsa (in different varieties), cherry salad dressing. Additionally, in a separate building you’ll find cherry libations of both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic sort—cherry wine, cherry cider, cherry sodas. It’s a Cherry Wonderland!

Cherry Republic is just a FUN place to browse and shop. Samples abound and you likely won’t leave empty-handed (though you could leave empty-walleted!) The wares showcase one of northern Michigan’s premier crops—the tart cherry—in ways that I’d never even considered! If you ever find yourself in Leelanau County, Michigan, make a stop at Cherry Republic!

1I am using a political geography term when I use “state”. By “state”, I refer to a sovereign body with actual boundaries, its own laws, and its own government.

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