“SPAM: How the American Dream Got Canned”
WNYC Studios and The Atlantic present
A special series from The Experiment Podcast
Beginning February 3, 202
Listen to the trailer here
January 27, 2022 – The Experiment, the podcast from WNYC Studios and The Atlantic––named one of the Best Podcasts of 2021 by Apple Podcasts, Mashable, SiriusXM––is kicking off its second year with “SPAM: How the American Dream Got Canned,” a three-episode series looking at the complicated, glorious, problematic, globe-trotting history of SPAM. Listen to the trailer here.
Beginning Thursday, February 3, “SPAM” considers the ways in which this humble food product became a symbol for the American dream and ultimately found itself at the heart of a story about labor, community, and how we work that resonates deeply with present-day concerns.
Co-reported by The Experiment host Julia Longoria and producer Gabrielle Berbey, “SPAM” starts in the Philippines, where American G.I.s first disseminated cans of SPAM, and ends up in Austin, Minnesota (aka “SPAMTown USA”), where SPAM employed generations of meatpackers and tore the town apart.
“A story that started with the simple question of how SPAM became a beloved staple in my Filipino family led our team into the history of one of the most fundamental arguments we still have today about work, dignity, family, and identity,” said Berbey. “Each person brings their own memories, emotions, and feelings to this really simple food; it’s the ultimate Rorschach test for American ideals.”
Episode descriptions are as follows:
The series begins with a look at how war turned an American product into an enduring part of Filipino culture and imagination. During WWII, wherever American troops spread democracy, canned SPAM was left in its wake. SPAM was a key part of American G.I.’s food rations: a portable, pre-cooked source of protein, and they shared their surplus with the local populations they sought to liberate. That’s how Gabrielle Berbey’s grandfather first encountered it as a kid in the Philippines. To him, SPAM came to represent freedom.
Episode two illuminates how the workers making SPAM sat at the center of a labor battle that impacted the entire American labor movement. Canned SPAM was brought to you by the sweat of several generations of American meatpackers in Austin, MN—Spamtown, USA. For decades, working at Hormel’s slaughterhouse was a gruesome but greatly coveted job for family men—it won them the modern-day equivalent of a six-figure salary, health benefits, and generous vacation. But in the 1980s, the Hormel Corporation, and our entire economy, went through a painful transformation that left exhausted but ever-polite midwestern meatpackers to tell their employer to (as home-made t-shirts declared) “Cram Your SPAM Please.” The meatpackers union launched what would become one of the longest and most contentious strikes in American history, putting a final nail in the coffin of union power in the United States, and tearing the company town and the families living there apart. Today, as the American worker staggers, exhausted, into the third year of a pandemic, The Experiment enters the homes of those strike-torn families in Austin, MN, and asks: Was the battle worthwhile?
The series ends with a portrait of the people still making SPAM today. You can find clues of who the Hormel workers are today on the streets of Austin, MN’s quaint downtown. On weekend nights across the street from the SPAM Museum, a Latin dance club fills with Spanish-speaking patrons. A taco truck is parked outside the Austin Labor Center. There’s a Sudanese market and a Asian food store. A new generation of workers has flooded the town for the chance to package some of America’s most iconic meat. Some residents consider the town to be a model for how to integrate immigrants. But changes to production at the SPAM factory led to the spread of a mysterious disease at the slaughterhouse, complicating this idyllic picture of new immigrants in the American heartland.
From WNYC Studios and The Atlantic, The Experiment is a weekly podcast that tells stories of what happens when individual people confront deeply held American ideals in their own lives, and how cultural and political contradictions reveal who we are. In naming The Experiment to its Best of 2021 list, Apple Podcasts said it excels at “elucidating the notion that countries — like people — are unfinished works in progress, and facilitating a dialogue about what it means to be a citizen.” The show was also lauded as the best of the year by New York Magazine’s Vulture, Mashable, SiriusXM, Pandora, AnOther, and more.
The Experiment is available at https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/experiment and all other platforms where podcasts are available.
About WNYC Studios
WNYC Studios is the premier producer of on-demand and broadcast audio, and home to some of the industry’s most critically acclaimed and popular podcasts, including Radiolab, On the Media, The New Yorker Radio Hour, Death, Sex & Money, Dolly Parton’s America, The Experiment, and The United States of Anxiety. WNYC Studios is leading the new golden age in audio with podcasts and national radio programs that inform, inspire, and delight millions of curious and highly engaged listeners across digital, mobile, and broadcast platforms. Programs include personal narratives, deep journalism, revealing interviews, and smart entertainment as varied and intimate as the human voice itself. For more information, visit wnyc studios.org.
About The Atlantic
Since 1857, The Atlantic has been a magazine of ideas—a home to the best writers and boldest minds, who bring clarity and original thinking to the most important issues of our time. Through our journalism, we aim to help our readers better understand the world and its possibilities, as they navigate the complexities of daily life. Record audiences and numbers of subscribers have turned to The Atlantic’s exacting coverage of the pandemic, of threats to global democracy, and of a national reckoning on race. Jeffrey Goldberg is The Atlantic’s editor in chief; Nick Thompson is the CEO. The Atlantic was named the 2021 Magazine of the Year by Adweek.