AUSTIN, Minn. -- The Geo. A. Hormel & Co. threw itself one humdinger of a 100th birthday party Saturday, with a hot-air balloon, rock music and more cans of Spam, the company's most famous product, than seemed remotely digestible.
It was a day to celebrate how George Hormel, a German immigrant, chanced upon southern Minnesota's "cool blue skies" and stayed to found a meat-packing empire whose sales topped $2.6 billion last year. Along the way, the company claims to have invented Canadian bacon, marketed the first canned ham and sent 200 million pigs to hog heaven.
Chilly, windy weather eroded the expected turnout of 5,000 people,but it did nothing to spoil the fun of the hundreds on hand.
"This is springtime in Minnesota!" shouted Bob, of Bob and the Beachcombers, who shivered in Hawaiian shirts and short pants between surfing songs.
For Hormel, it was most of all a day to sing the praises of Spam, albeit just one of the company's 1,600 products. There were Spam breakfasts, a Spam-eating contest, Spam sculptures and a pageant to choose the children who would reign as King and Queen of Spam. Prowling tirelessly about was Spam Man, dressed to resemble a can of you-know-what.
The self-portrait clearly intended to emerge from this "Spam Jamboree Day" was of a company robustly back on track after labor battles that peaked in early 1986 when the governor called in the National Guard. Name-calling, vandalism and violence marked the 13-month battle, which ended with hundreds of union workers losing their jobs.
There remains bitterness against the company, which had been long known for its benevolence, as reflected by its 1938 initiation of one of the nation's earliest profit-sharing plans. But the worst acrimony was between friends and relatives who diverged on whether to cross the picket line.
Some say that the passions are cooling. "Everyone is coming around and looking up," said Cheryl Cook, who works in Hormel's consumer affairs department. "It's a healing process."
Others disagree. "It's like toasting the executioner, the guy who pulls the lever," said Pete Winkles, who is business agent for Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
And some see deeper motives. "They're trying to control how people remember history," said Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College in St. Paul.
Since before it employed George Burns, Gracie Allen and a pig named Spammy to star in radio commercials, Hormel has been aggressively promotional. It seems never to tire of disseminating Spam lore -- from its much-maligned role in feeding troops to the boggling statistic that Americans down 3.8 seven-ounce cans of the stuff a second.
The company even revels in the abuse heaped on Spam, calling it "the Rodney Dangerfield of the food world."
Hormel recalls the old Army line that Spam is ham that couldn't pass its physical. Spam, short for spiced ham, is made from chopped pork shoulder meat and ham.
Saturday's events evoked a sort of America one associates with country fairs.
Instead of pie contests, people were invited to concoct original creations from Spam: Spam fried rice, Spam wild rice casserole -- and much more.
After the judging, people lined up to heap plates with samples of the Spam masterpieces.
The contest to be Spam king and queen, limited to those 5 to 8 years old, was to die for.
David, 6, was asked when he last had Spam. "I can't remember," he said. The announcer pressed on: "Was it a short time or a long time?" The reply: "A long time."
Ashley, shivering in a pink leotard and a pig snout, was asked how much Spam she could eat at one time. "A spoonful," she said.
Justin, 8, was chosen king, perhaps because he said he would eat 10 million cans if given the opportunity and wouldn't share with anybody. Stephanie, 7, was chosen queen after saying she wanted the honor because "it tastes good."
The eating contest was most frenetic. Contestants raced to see who could most rapidly consume a can of Spam and glass of water. Some picked up the entire pink block and ate it like a candy bar; some nipped like terriers; some ripped it apart with the fingers first.
The winner, with a time of 56.71 seconds, was Steve Kirschenman. Kirschenman attributed his victory to his mother but did not explain.