Spam Spam Spam Spam,

Spam Spam Spam Spam,

Lovely Spam, Wonderful Spam!

Lyrics by Monty Python, from

"Monty Python's Flying Circus" TV show

Yecch. Blecch. Ptooui. Yes, just mention Spam and you're likely to get this sort of reaction from most of the American public. But we come not to condemn Spam (not to eat it, either, thank you very much) but to give it its just desserts on its 50th birthday.

It's the food for the '80s. Well, okay, maybe not. But it is convenient and not particularly nutritious. Open a can and dump it out. You can slice it with a knife, eat it with a fork, feed it to the dog or simply throw the whole mess away. It's quick, it's easy, it's Spam.

Yum.

Back in 1937, the Hormel meatpacking company decided to market a spiced ham product made from pork shoulder meat and other parts of the pig that were mostly being thrown away. Sounds good already, doesn't it? The name, incidentally, is an acronym chosen in a $100 name-that-ham contest won by a Hormel executive's brother, who derived it from SP-iced h-AM. This no doubt won over other obvious suggestions, such as S-piced HAM.

Since then, we've been blessed with Spam, and it's a mixed blessing. GIs in World War II were blessed with zillions of cans of the stuff. In fact, Spam was a big part of the "lend" half of the lend-lease program. It was sent to the armies of our allies, which must account at least in part for the fact that we're no longer on the Soviet Union's "A" list. Nikita Khrushchev is quoted in his biography, "Khrushchev Remembers," as saying that despite the jokes, "Without Spam, we wouldn't have been able to feed our army." Whether he followed that with "We will bury you" is uncertain.

But you could probably bury Spam for 50 years, dig it up, open it and find it tastes the same as a brand-new can. Like dog food (hint -- don't open Spam and Alpo at the same time in the dark), it needs no refrigeration. Like a half-eaten box of graham crackers, it can sit in the pantry for years before anyone will touch it. According to Hormel, its shelf life is "indefinite." You could take that to mean that its flavor will be preserved like that of a bottle of Chateau Lafitte, or like wheat seeds from the time of King Tut.

Whatever it tastes like and however well preserved it is, Spam apparently attracts consumers in scary numbers. Hormel says that 30 percent of American households buy the stuff, which the company can turn out in the United States at a rate of almost 4 million cans a week. That, no matter how you figure it, means somebody is eating a lot of Spam. It gets worse. According to Hormel, 3.6 cans of Spam are eaten every second.

Yum.

The English, well-known for their exotic culinary artistry, eat more Spam than anyone else in the world. On a per capita basis, residents of Hawaii, Alaska, Texas and Alabama are the heaviest Spam users. Take it either way. Of these four, Hawaii is the leader, with 1 million Hawaiians going through 4 million cans of it a year. Of course, Hawaii is also where they eat poi.

In the Washington area, according to Safeway and Giant food stores, 60,800 cans are eaten -- or at least sold, at $1.58 per 12 ounces -- every month. And still, about 70 percent of us either don't or won't eat it, no matter how it's fixed. Fixed, you say? Yes, apparently -- and Hormel has provided a handy recipe book to prove it -- there are more ways to prepare Spam than there are ways to prepare, say, bologna. There are ways to incorporate it into breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack.

You can make a "Frittata," billed as "An upside-down omelet with an Italian name!" (oooh, boy!). The ever-popular "Three Bean Salad" ("Great for potlucks and suppers"); of course, "Foil Dinner on the Grill," which sounds logical (wouldn't Spam foil any dinner?); and "Cabbage Apple Supper," the answer to combining two of your favorite taste treats with Spam.

And these are only the company-sanctioned recipes. Imagine what you can come up with on your own! Spam Soup! (Spam, water and catsup). Spam Bake! (stick it in the oven and call it a tiny meat loaf). Spam on a Stick! (liven up lunchtime for the kids). Spam a` la Mode! (Slop some vanilla ice cream on top of a slice and dig in!). Spam Surprise! (plain Spam right out of the can -- "Mom, can we please have some more?"). Create your own -- fool your friends!

But you don't have to do all the culinary thinking, because, in addition to good old regular Spam, there is Spam: The Smoke Flavor, Spam With Cheese Chunks (little yellow bits mushed into the loaf. Looks real good) and Spam with 25 percent less salt, which still has more salt than you need.

And therein lies one of Spam's problems. It's not particularly good for you. The ingredients, plain as day on the can, are "chopped pork shoulder meat with ham meat added and salt, water, sugar and sodium nitrite." There are 1,040 calories in a 12-ounce can of Spam, but no one is likely to eat 12 ounces in a single sitting. A reasonable four-ounce serving has 340 calories. This is not diet food.

This is not health food either. With two tablespoons of fat per four ounces, 1,700 milligrams of sodium and virtually no vitamins or nutrition (well, not totally lacking in nutrition -- Hormel says Spam contains various concentrations of magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium and copper), Spam is not the breakfast of champions. Even the new "Less Salt" version (1,000 versus the 1,700 milligrams per four ounces) carries the disclaimer "not recommended for sodium restricted diet." To compensate for the lower salt level, "Less Salt" Spam gets a host of other fun ingredients, such as sodium phosphate, potassium chloride and sodium ascorbate. John Denver is not likely to go out on the stump for this one.

But the town of Austin, Minn., Hormel headquarters, will. The people there will go on the stump, across the street, up a flagpole or to the moon for Spam. Specifically, they're going this weekend to "Cedar River Days," an annual celebration that this year honors Spam. (Okay, to be truthful, maybe not everyone in Austin will be celebrating Spam. Austin was the scene of a bitter 13-month strike by employes of the meatpacking company; though formally ended last September by workers who voted in a new contract, the episode left several hundred workers who did not cross picket lines off the job. Protests are planned during the four-day celebration.)

Austin's residents have the chance to revel in a veritable Spam orgy. Among the highlights: the Spam-O-Rama recipe contest, the Spam medallion hunt, the Spam-O-Rama cookoff (this stuff is not made up -- these people are serious), a breakfast featuring Spam 'n' hotcakes, a Spam sandwich stand, a gigantic Spam display and -- what community event would be complete without one -- a Spam air show (it doesn't feature flying cans of Spam or anything, but we're working with a theme here).

And, if you're lucky enough to attend before the celebration ends tomorrow, you'll have your chance to buy Spam: The Merchandise. The Spam ingot medallions: one ounce of silver plated in 24-karat gold, stamped with the Spam logo (lovely party gifts, at $100 a pop). Spam T-shirts, Spam hats, Spam banks, Spam "Meat Meals in Minutes" recipe books, Spam cutting boards, and -- oh, how could you have lived without one -- the Spam air mattress (is this beginning to sound like a David Letterman Top 10 list to you, too?).

Now for the obvious: Spam hogs 75 precent of the $175-million-a-year canned lunch meat market. Under Jim Bakker, PTL was supposedly taking in about $175 million a year. A connection? Maybe yes, maybe no. Spam's only competition in that market is Armour's Treet.

For all the beef about Spam, Hormel executives know it's their bread and butter and are accustomed to hearing a lot of baloney, not to mention mixed metaphors, about it.

"After five decades of jokes you just have to go along with it," said Hormel spokesman Allan Krejci. "When it was introduced, it immediately became the butt of jokes, but at the same time, sales were increasing. Basically, we enjoy a good laugh as much as anyone."

While they walk to the bank.