…in another’s words
‘That shit is fucking disgusting – I can’t believe people eat that. I can’t eat anything out of a can. Well, yeah, of course I like beer – like the thought of canned tuna makes me want to [gags in imitation]. I guess I mean the thought of meat in a can. Gross – like how do they make it so uniform? What’s even in it? [consults phone] It says here that it stands for Specially Processed American Meat! Like what. The. Fuck. Is. In. It? They must grab all of the dregs out of the abattoir drain and stick it in there. There’s no way to dress – [shows phone screen] I mean look. LOOK! What the fuck is that? Spam… musahbee? Muhsoob?!’
…in a roll
Spam comes first spitting and screaming in oil, nestled between the white folds of a roll. Mum might call it a bap, but we’re with Dad’s family at that point of the summer; so it’s a roll. It is sometimes a point of contention between them, emblematic of deeper historical hatred between the English and the Welsh. But, it is breakfast. The ingredient that reconciles my family again is the ketchup. My uncle passes it to me with his gnarled, brown hands. Jesus might have once broken bread but my Dad’s brother added pork and sauce.
And he doesn’t offer me much in the way of choice. This feeling is one that still returns to me whenever I sit down to eat; you eat what you are given. The first bites of the Spam roll remind me of bacon. It isn’t unpleasant and they say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. In lieu of crunch, there is a chew, and the streaks have been rendered into speckled fats. It is satisfyingly uniform in the bun, with two slices like soldiers in a foxhole. Its intrigue dulls the rhythm of rain on the roof, whose resulting streams fall with arcing persistence. I am too young for tea but it steams past the adults eyes, blearied from bygone cheer. It seems unfair to have it that way round – like the donkey getting its carrot only to be whipped repeatedly with the stick in the morning. But they sip tentatively at their teas – and they too eat what they are given.
…in its tin
In a New Yorker profile from 1945, Brendan Gill describes the capriciousness with which Jay Hormel, owner of Hormel Foods and creator of the tinned pork shoulder, swings from perspective to perspective with regards to his creation. It is tempting to mythologise the man who oscillates from ‘Sometimes I think we went too far’ to ‘Damn it, we eat it in our own home!’ A reluctant god, perhaps? A gastronomic Doctor Frankenstein, even?
What is certain is that Spam is a Promethean food. It is the culmination of industrial logarithms and agro-capitalist appetitite of the United States war machine. When you hold the 12-ounce tin, it is hard to hear little else other than a soundtrack of boots and seaward bombers. Bertram Charles ‘Bob’ Long, an Australian private serving with Z Force in Borneo from 1944 – 1945, told the story of how tins of Spam were dropped without a parachute into Borneo from a flyover. It is difficult to regard its blue tin as anything other than an armour.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Spam and its geographies are closely linked to American Military conquest. Guam boasts the highest consumption, followed closely by Hawaii, The Philippines and Korea. It has blended into cultural landscapes and traditions – from Budae Jjigae* (a fragrant stew flavoured with kimchi, fresh vegetables and ramen noodles) and Spam Musubi (a slice of grilled Spam on top of a block of rice, wrapped together with nori in the tradition of Japanese onigiri). It has many associations: conquest, liberations, occupation. But any notion of gloriousness must be roundly dispelled; Jay Hormel kept a folder of messages from soldiers in World War 2 who wrote to him about their experience of Spam. However, this folder was comprised mostly of hate mail. He didn’t say what kinds of things they wrote to him.
*The dish was created shortly after the armistice that ended the Korean War, using foods from U.S. military bases. Although the dish was born in the period of post-war impoverishment, it continued to be popular during the period of rapid growth, and has now become a staple of Korean food worldwide.
1. irrelevant or unsolicited messages for the purposes of advertising, phishing,
spreading malware, etc.
2. TRADEMARK – a tinned meat product made mainly from ham.
Time snagged on the days while the weeks slipped into a blur during the pandemic spring. Ashley once blurted, staring into the depths of her phone, ‘How did I lose a whole week in an hour?’. She meant that she had missed a delivery slot, but I wasn’t sure.
Sleeping days turned to insomniac nights, as we existed between boredoms. We floated down endless streams of great TV, fattened on fresh pasta and posed the inevitable will-we-open-another- bottle like a dare between children. Well, better this than to go outside. Or read the news.
Spam returned like a haunting. One afternoon whose stifling temperature can only be described as Climate Breakdown, there it was, lurking on the shaded shelf of a corner shop in the Liberties, Dublin. We both reached for it, surprised that the other knew what it was. We had only been dating for a few months at that point and were still building our web of idiosyncrasies together. A healthy dose of comedy to get us through the pandemic, a garden-variety obliviousness – and now this curious tin and its contents. I think we paid three-fifty for it.
On our walk back through the sun, Ashley described it would taste with her dad on the beach, over rice with a coddle of nori around it. For her, it would always taste better with the sea salt crystalizing on the perk of her lips, in the same way bartenders might rim a glass. This was desire, heightening that unique hankering hunger unique to just having swam. I could picture her perched in the sand in anticipation of the first bite.
She made spam for me, that night, laced with beads of soy and atop a pillow of rice.
The soy was malty and sweetened with just a little sugar, the fluffy rice gave chew. I was returned to its again its novelty but that it was novel, and deliberate, an acknowledgment that Spam is a food of gratitude, dependent upon the imagination of the chef to heighten it to delicacy. I told her this – probably not this but more a few grunts of approval. She turned to me, with a prodding glint in her eye, and said that white people don’t want to eat it. That they likened it to cat food. That sometimes they would tread from toying simile to more serious adjectives.
I probably fell for it then, probably telling her that some white people still eat it, at which the glint in her eye sharpened by her smiling cheeks.
‘Are you saying not all white people, Will?’
The pandemic raged for another year after that. Spam was but a morsel within the waves, but I savoured it’s humour with serious satisfaction.
…in the aesthetics of formation
Do euphemisms taste overpowering?
Is to transform enough? And what of body and word?
Could I leave this lazaretto comfort
Whose walls are penned in ham, hock and pork?
Would I then begin to smell the tripery
Or feel the tuning saw
As the gate swings from my holding
And am wrestled through the stalls?
Is this my apotheo –
To a cocoon of 12-ounce shelf stable weapon.
…before her hands were gnarled in arthritic craze
She approached the door just as it swung closed, her hands stuffed into her pockets. Her legs were tired from the walk – she cursed herself for registering at this shop. Her collar turned against the wind, she thought of how little there is to look forward to in January. At least in December, she could look forward to her store in the Christmas cupboard. But now, she could only hope that there would be enough on the shelves to make herself something substantial for her supper. Last week, her butter ration had halved from four ounces to two.
She stepped into the warmth, almost jolted by the vibrance of the carrots and the onions, the faceless corrugation of the tins, a few jars, but she breathed a sigh of relief at the bread behind the counter as she joined the small queue. It was the National Loaf, and while she admitted to herself quietly that she would prefer a fluffy white loaf, she had learned a gratitude can belittle a groaning stomach. Her fingers toyed with the white folds of the small book and felt a pang when she could not see any tins of corned beef, its burnt orange usually so quick to grab her from the coin clatter and the cold that still seeped into her bones.
She had often thought that hunger and axiety have the same pang, and in those moment, she could not discern which had struck her. Corned beef was her favourite. It would never fill her stomach so that she might sleep through the night. It was never enough to fill the silence that flooded the streets. But its sizzle was what brought her away from a life of calculation, drawing her through shadowy blackouts, out of paraffin bunkers and down into the pan. It could intrigue the blandest of potatoes, could butter the mushiest of breads. She had grown to make the suppers go a long way and had planted a garden in the spirit of the posters and radio broadcasts. But private pleasure had been in dwindling supply.
She stepped forward to the counter.
‘Good afternoon, Constance. What might I do for you today?’
‘Good afternoon. May I have 8 ounces of sugar, 8 ounces of marmalade, a tin of plums, one egg with another packet of dried egg, a loaf of bread. And do you have more corned beef?’
‘May I see your ration booklet?’
‘Oh, my apologies. Yes, certainly.’
She handed over the book.
‘I am afraid that we are have no more corned beef today, madam. You will have to come back for that tomorrow and I will ensure that I will have your share. However, I do have Spam which is now only 8 points from your booklet.’
She looked down at the grey label. At the top it read – THIS IS A SPECIAL ECONOMY LABLE FOR A PERIOD OF EMERGENCY – and below that, in the same rounded font – SPAM. INGREDIENTS: CHOPPED PORK SHOULDER MEAT with HAM MEAT ADDED and SALT, WATER SUGAR, SODIUM NITRITE and FLAVORING.
‘It’s bit queer at the beginning but it’s lovely once you get over it. I like it, I really like it, you know? Its chock-a-block full of meat and it has quite a sweet taste. It’s a taste I really like and I’ve got used to it. I’ll have it in a sandwich with a little bit of mustard.’
The weight of the 12-ounce tin sat heavily in her hands. She examined the curious tin with its queer spellings.
‘I suppose I will have to take this.’
FROM THE AMERICAN CHEESE SPECIAL
Image generated on Stable Diffusion
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Will Penn resides in Dublin with his 2 cats, Thelonious and Zoolah. His work has often been described as “unfortunately, not currently what we are looking for” and “I didn’t get the bit about the trees.” He is currently struggling with his first full body of work.