What ever happened to Austin's Spamarama?
This story was originally published on March 14, 2019.
Spam, the canned meat product, helped Allied soldiers win World War II and later helped baby boomers and their parents stretch that food budget a little further.
But Spam also served as the centerpiece of one of Austin’s odder and more popular festivals: Spamarama.
“I remember going there as a kid, maybe I was 10 years old, and being absolutely disgusted by everything,” says longtime Austinite Nick Kincaid. “I was just wondering what the heck happened to it."
So, where did it go?
A Celebrated Cook-Off
“It was a cold winter's day and I was lamenting the fact that everywhere you looked, every other weekend, there was a chili cook-off,” says David Arnsberger, one of the co-founders of Spamarama. “And I said, ‘You know, anybody can make chili. You just take some kind of meat, and some kind of chili powder, and if you're from north of the Red River, you can even throw in beans. But if you could make Spam edible, that would be a feat.’"
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Arnsberger asked the owner of the Soap Creek Saloon, where his band played, if they could do a Spam cook-off there. He gave the OK, and Spam-O-Rama was born. (The name would later transform into Spamarama.)
"We did not expect many people to show up, but we had 300 people there that first year,” Arnsberger says.
It was April Fool’s Day, 1978. Many entries captured the irreverent spirit of the event.
“One [contestant] entered a pan on a Coleman stove with a cover on it,” Arnsberger says. "And as the judges walked around, he opened it up and there was Spam in the pot, still in the can. And another guy covered a chunk of Spam from out of the can with Pepto-Bismol and called it 'Spam ala Pepto.'"
There were also serious entries judged by celebrities like writer Molly Ivins; Liz Carpenter, the former press secretary for Lady Bird Johnson; and chef Paul Prudhomme. There were categories for best taste, showmanship and, perhaps the most coveted: worst-tasting dish.
After a few years at Soap Creek Saloon, Spamarama became what Arnsberger calls a “moveable feast.” Essential ingredients stayed the same: live music, local celebs and Spam dishes. But there was always something new.
One year, drinks entered the competition.
“One guy had a blender, a jug of V8 juice, a bottle of vodka,” Arnsberger says. "As the judges walked by, he goes, 'I'm making Bloody Spam-Marys,' and he dropped … a chunk of Spam and hit blend.”
If you preferred something sweeter, there was the Spam-arita, a frozen margarita with suspended chunks of Spam.
Owner Tom Davis says crowds descended on Green Mesquite BBQ for the festival.
“We had to fence off our restaurant parking lot. I had to get special insurance that day. My insurance company was freaking out that I was doing this," he says. But "[my agent] brought his whole family. It was hilarious.”
Arnsberger and crew added “athletic events” for a Spamalympics: eating contests and Spam relays. There was a Spam tug-of-war with a special treat for the losers.
“If you got pulled through, you got immersed in a kiddie pool full of Spam," he says, "and, you know, the gelatinous substance inside. I'm not sure what exactly that is."
There was a movie made about Spamarama. It has been documented by the Smithsonian.
CBS Television asked Arnsberger to stage a fake Spamarama on Auditorium Shores with one of the signature events, the Spam toss.
“At like 6 o’clock on a Friday morning, I had teams come out there, Crazy Carl and a bunch of guys came out,” he says. "And they had this great video on TV – national TV – in a blue sky with these pink chunks of Spam flying.”
A Claim To A Name
Spam was created in 1936 by Jay Hormel, the son of the Hormel Foods’ founder. The name comes from “spiced ham.” It's one of the company’s biggest hits, and there's even a museum for it Austin, Minn.
The original recipe included chopped pork shoulder meat with ham, salt, water, sugar and sodium nitrite. It's fully cooked, pressed into a block and canned. Spam was a staple in the war effort, while back home, families found the ready-to-eat meat to be a simple solution for meals.
"The thing, I think, that made [the festival] work the most is Spam is an all-American icon."
It also became the kind of punchline Arnsberger could build a whole day around.
“The thing, I think, that made it work the most is Spam is an all-American icon,” he says. "Everybody has heard of Spam. Most people from our generation and the generation before World War II ... ate it and, you know, half the people either love it or they hate it.”
Things were going well for Spamarama. Attendance had ballooned. For a number of years, the event flew under Hormel’s radar.
But, in the late '80s, as Arnsberger remembers it, a Hormel representative saw a Spamarama T-shirt and tracked down its artist, Jim Franklin. Franklin is the artist behind many of the iconic posters for the Armadillo World Headquarters – he designed Spamarama tees, too.
Arnsberger says Hormel sent Franklin a cease-and-desist letter, demanding he stop using Spam in his art.
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Back then, Hormel didn't play when it came to folks mocking its products, big or small. It sued Jim Henson Productions over a Muppets movie where an evil pig is named Spa’am. (A judge threw out the case, saying Hormel failed to prove damages. "One might think Hormel would welcome the association with a genuine source of pork," the judge wrote.)
Arnsberger tried to avoid a lawsuit by changing the name of the event to SpaYUMarama.
But with the weight of a giant meat corporation bearing down, he negotiated exclusive rights to use the phrase Spamarama and hold the event with a few conditions. One was that Hormel now owned the trademark. Another was to not play with the food.
Some were followed faithfully, others not so much.
After the settlement, Arnsberger’s moved briefly to Colorado and tried to run the 1999 event remotely. It became too unwieldy, so he sold his rights to Spamarama.
And here begins the story of the end.
When Ansberger returned to Austin, the rights were up for grabs again, so he and Davis, who was running Scholz Garten at the time, made a bid. Hormel apparently got hung up over having the event at a place that sold alcohol, and Arnsberger failed to win it back.
Spamarama bounced around to a number of promoters and, in Arnsberger’s words, went “fallow.”
In 2011, it was organized by one of Arnsberger’s former partners. He was not asked to be a part of it.
On the day of Spamarama, he left work early to see what had come of it.
"I paid $10 to get into Spamarama," he says. "It was raining and 37 degrees. They were packing the sound gear off of the stage and I said, ‘I thought Uranium Savages were playing today.’ ‘No, man, we’re not going to have music today.’ There were only three [cook-off] entries underneath the big tent.”
Spamarama was held for the last time at Waterloo Park that year.
A Possible Comeback?
Cressandra Thibodeaux, who directed Spamarama the Movie, says Spamarama changed when it became a commodity, something to bid on and pass along. She says what’s happened to David Arnsberger is analogous to what's happening to Austin.
“This guy was making the scene in Austin," she says, "Now he’s living in a small apartment far from the edge of the beating heart."
Arnsberger still keeps a toe in the scene, hosting “Texas Radio Live” weekly on Sun Radio.
“These people who have been here for 40 years and know David are giving him what they can provide for him to exist and keep going,” Thibodeaux says. "They’re honoring one of the people who helped make Austin so ... wonderful and fantastic that we can barely live here.”
“I just slipped away,” Arnsberger says. "People keep asking me why I won’t do Spamarama again. It’s Humpty Dumpty, you know? All the king's horses and all the king's men can't put Spamarama together again.”
It seemed like the end for Spamarama.
But Arnsberger says someone recently approached him – "I'm not going to mention any names" – with a venue that's "perfect" for the event.
So, he may try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Look for it this summer at a venue near you.
Update: Spamarama made its return in both 2019 and 2022.