I love a good road trip and, I confess, I have a little bit of an obsession. I collect brochures. I don’t mean that I have a basement full of full color brochures from every place I’ve ever visited. That might actually make sense.
I mean that at every hotel, roadside diner, and rest stop, the first thing I do is check out the tourism brochure rack, and I usually pick up at least three or four. Of course I do this in the places where I’m staying for a while, but also in the places I’m just driving through.
And here’s the strange part, I almost never go to the places in the brochures. But I love to learn about bizarre little tourist sites that get highlighted on those racks. I guess it’s my way of soaking in some of quirkiness of the communities I am privileged to pass through.
There are the standard places like zoos, waterparks, and outlet malls and in this part of the country there’s usually a cave tour or two. Sometimes those are accompanied by interesting stories. But the ones I like best advertise those truly unique places, the ones that are just weird enough that it’s unlikely anyone would ever travel specifically to a particular area just to see them.
My latest find, maybe the best brochure I have ever picked up on a road trip, came from a hotel in Rochester, Minnesota where we stopped this weekend on our way to watch a community theater musical production that featured one of our very talented nieces.
Obviously she stole the show and we were delighted to be there to watch her performance, but I admit, second to that, my favorite part of the trip was the place we didn’t go: The SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota.
Austin is only about a 45 minute drive from Rochester and not particularly out of the way for a traveler headed back to St. Louis, but it was the last day of our whirlwind weekend road trip. We were anxious to head home. And I was the only one who seemed at all interested in going.
How could I not be? First of all the museum is free, so even if it’s not everything it’s advertised to be, all you’ve lost is an hour or so of your time, which you can’t ever get back. Still, how can you say no to a tourist destination that boldly proclaims: “Theater! Game Show! Restrooms! IT’S ALL HERE!”
So since my family wouldn’t be convinced to tour the museum (okay so it’s possible I didn’t try that hard), I had to research SPAM the old fashioned way and just Google it.
SPAM hit the market in 1937 and soon dominated the canned meat industry. A spiced ham product initially made entirely from pork shoulder which had been an underutilized cut of meat up to that point in the company Hormel’s canned meat products, SPAM received its iconic name from a somewhat suspicious contest.
The winning entry was submitted by an actor named Ken Daigneau who also happened to be the brother of a Hormel Foods Vice President. There’s no word on whether or not said vice president was in fact the judge of the contest, but Hormel awarded Daigneau $100 for his efforts and it’s a good thing they did because “ham jello” just doesn’t sing as well.
Though SPAM (which Hormel claims stands for “spiced ham” and not the “something posing as meat” that some have suggested) took off largely as a wartime food, its real boost into the popular psyche came from Monty Python’s famous 1970 SPAM comedy sketch, which period actors with brilliant British accents (I’m sure) reenact daily for a fascinated audience at the SPAM Museum.
Alas, I’ve never been. Still, I do have the brilliant brochure that both splits into detachable postcards with fun SPAM facts so you can conveniently invite your friends from all over the world to a SPAM pilgrimage they won’t soon forget and also features a helpful map placing the museum into geographical context with the World’s Largest Stack of Empty Oil Cans. I haven’t managed to collect a brochure advertising that American travel gem yet, but it’s definitely on my list of sites to not visit.