Spamarama is back.
One of Austin’s longest-running food-themed events has been on hiatus for 12 years, and founder David Arnsberger hasn’t been involved since the mid-2000s, but on Saturday, the ode to canned meat — and Americana and Austin’s hippie roots — is coming back with a squeal.
“It’s an American icon, and the one thing about it is that everyone knows what it is,” says Arnsberger, a local radio personality who moved to Austin in 1969 to go to the University of Texas, where he studied anthropology. “People either love it or they hate it, but it’s recognizable to just about everyone.”
The festival started on April Fools' Day 1978 at a bar called Soap Creek Saloon on Bee Cave Road. Arnsberger recalls that he and a friend had joked a few months earlier that there were so many chili cookoffs, even though chili wasn’t that hard to make taste good. “But Spam. If you could make Spam edible, that would be a feat.”
They didn’t think anyone would show up, but when 300 people did, they decided it might be worth doing again, if only as a regular gig for their band, the Uranium Savages. Austinites latched on to the excuse to dress in costume, compete in pig-shouting contests and come up with every Spam and pig pun-themed dish they could imagine. Artist Jim Franklin designed posters and T-shirts that became collectors' items.
Franklin was the person who received the initial cease-and-desist order from Hormel, Spam’s parent company, and “it took them a few more years to find me,” Arnsberger says. Over the next four years, they worked out a deal where Spamarama could continue, and they even provided Spam-branded swag for prizes.
Arnsberger published a Spamarama cookbook in 1998, which turned out to be the event’s biggest year, when more than 14,000 people gathered at Auditorium Shores for the celebration.
But things were changing in Austin and in Arnsberger’s life. He was married at the time with a young child, and he and the family moved to Boulder for his wife’s job. Auditorium Shores was undergoing a huge renovation, so Spamarama was in new hands and in new venues.
Arnsberger couldn’t run it from afar, and his attempts to re-create Spamarama in Colorado and Dallas didn’t yield enough success to host them a second year.
He moved back to Austin in 2005 and carried on with his life as a DJ, and by 2007, Spamarama was running out of steam. Americans were in the middle of their latest love affair with health foods and “clean” eating, and a recession was bubbling.
But they went out with a bang in Waterloo Park. From the Austin Chronicle report that year: “Record-breaking cold couldn't stop the athletes from impressing the crowds with their canned-meat cramming skills.” Brent Ricord used a unique technique of “standing, rather than sitting; a gnawing-jaw action; and regular sluicing-down with sips of bottled water,” wrote reporter Richard Whittaker.
Josh Bumb, co-owner of Moontower Saloon, went to the last Spamarama in 2007 to see what the hubbub was about.
He hadn’t yet opened his South Austin watering hole, but he knew he was part of a younger generation of Austinites who wanted to know more about the city’s cultural history so he could help carry it on.
That’s why, earlier this year, when he was thinking about how quickly the city is changing, Spamarama came to mind.
“Spam is pure Americana,” he says. “Just like this event is pure Austin.” He didn’t want to see it die forever.
He did some googling and reached out to Arnsberger, who had always said he didn’t think he could put the pieces of the festival back together again.
But Arnsberger still had a contract with Hormel that gave him the rights to use the name if he ever changed his mind.
“Twelve years later, it bounced back into my lap, and I said, ‘Why not?’" Arnsberger says.
Together, they started working on a comeback.
Because Bumb had a venue, Arnsberger got to focus on reviving some of the beloved Spamarama events, including the Spamalympics, which test contestants’ skills handling and eating the Spam. “But it’s not Spamarama without a cookoff. That’s the heart of the whole thing,” Arnsberger says.
Over the years, more than 100 teams have competed in a number of categories, with some focusing on outlandish showmanship while others focused on making dishes that tasted good. Many of the most memorable submissions were Spam sculptures, including one perennial favorite that looked like an alligator.
Teams get big points for showing off, so Arnsberger is hoping to see some of that spirit on display. “It’s a fun way for people to get together and compete and show their stuff and be creative,” he says.
Chefs are invited to participate in the professional division, while home cooks will compete in the open division. The only rule is that you have to bring enough samples for the five judges, but in the past, many teams have brought enough to give samples to the crowd. (If you’re interested in competing, go to spamarama.net for details.)
“I always tell people Spam has never crossed these lips, but I did indulge a little there,” he says.
Esteemed judges over the years included writers Molly Ivins and Liz Carpenter and celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme. This year, many veteran judges, including TV personality Jim Swift, Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, columnist Jim Hightower and South by Southwest co-creator Nick Barbaro, will return.
But when it came to Spamarama judges, no one could top John Kelso, the longtime Statesman humor columnist who died in 2017 and was one of Arnsberger’s closest friends. “He judged Spamarama more than anyone else,” he says. “I miss him.”
In honor of his salty friend, Arnsberger has decided to add Kelso’s name to the award that goes to the team with the worst dish.
“I think we’ll call it the John Kelso Memorial Worst Taste Award,” he says.
Although a lot about Austin has changed since the early Spamarama days, Arnsberger sees the spirit continue to thrive, especially in the live music scene.
When he’s not booking bands for the live show, Arnsberger is working on his Pioneers of Sun Radio segments, which chronicle the lives of the many musicians who left their mark on music culture.
He’s been booking and hosting a Wednesday night show at Guero’s for Sun Radio for eight years, which means he’s booked more than 700 different bands and artists over the years, with few repeats. “From my perspective, the depth and quality of music in this town is unfathomable.” That alone gives him hope.
“I believe in Austin.”
This ham salad from Cathy Barrow isn't a Spam recipe, but it's a retro ham recipe that you could use Spam in, if you dare. Just omit any added salt.
Not familiar with ham salad? I'll let her explain: "Ham salad makes for a delicious sandwich filler, particularly on soft white bread with a piece of iceberg lettuce. Or bring it to your next potluck, piled on crinkle-cut potato chips and set out on a platter like something fancy. In very short order, that platter will be clean as a whistle, and mayo haters may even contemplate a similar hack for deviled eggs. A meat grinder is the tool of choice to create the classic texture. Fresh out of meat grinders? I used my food processor to chop the ham and celery into small bits."
She says the pickle relish is key, because it brings a sweet-and-sour punch to the ham, then the triad of mayonnaise-replicators — yogurt, mustard and lemon juice — gather it all together. The shallot needs to soak in an ice-water bath for 30 minutes; this will lessen its bite and keep the shallot crisp. The salad should be refrigerated for at least 4 hours before serving (so the flavors meld) and up to 3 days.
— Addie Broyles
12 ounces cooked ham, coarsely chopped (see headnote)
1 celery rib, coarsely chopped
1 small shallot, minced and soaked in ice water for 30 minutes, then drained (see headnote)
1/2 cup sweet pickle relish
1/4 cup plain, full-fat Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons brown mustard or Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Kosher salt (optional)
Combine the ham and celery in a food processor. Pulse several times until the mixture is in very small, uniform pieces, about the size of lentils. Do not overprocess or the mixture will get pasty.
Scrape the ham and celery into a mixing bowl and add the soaked and drained shallot, relish, yogurt, lemon juice, mustard, celery seed and pepper. Stir together until uniform and creamy. Taste and season lightly with salt, if needed. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours to let the flavors combine. Serves 8.
— Cathy Barrow