The apotheosis of Spam
Spam, Spam, wonderful Spam, favoured food of intellectualsBy John Ryle • October 1995 • City of Words • The Guardian • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 1,321 words
The Daily Camera is a newspaper published in Boulder, Colorado; Jack Collom is a local poet; John Bayley is a British literary critic; Roger Scruton is a philosopher; the Times Literary Supplement is a high-brow periodical; Spam is a kind of tinned pig meat. And a wrinkle in the Zeitgeist has brought them all together.
Take a look at the programme for the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, currently unfolding in the Welsh Marches, down in Fred West country. Here, between discussions of such everyday topics as “Prison Writing” and “The Problems of Literature in a Post-Ideological Society”, we find the literary critic John Bayley and his wife, the novelist Dame Iris Murdoch, slated to give a talk entitled “Boiled Onions and Corned Beef”. It’s scheduled for Wednesday this week.
There’s a foretaste of the event in a letter that appeared, some months back, in the TLS. In this letter John Bayley—clearly a fan of processed animal protein—defends, in glowing terms, not corned beef, but Spam, its American cousin.
“You will find plenty in any supermarket,” he writes. “Fried with mushrooms and garlic, it is still quite a gastronomic treat.”
Among men of letters, it turns out, Professor Bayley is not alone. In a subsequent letter to the TLS the novelist and critic Julian Symons can be found expanding on the further culinary possibilities of Spam. It is good, he avers, with Emmental cheese and scrambled eggs.
“Not all synthetic products are to be despised,” he concludes.
A pig in a portmanteau
Meanwhile, in the United States, in Boulder, Colorado, Jack Collom, a poet of post-modern sensibility, has been having his moment of fame. It begins when the Food and Entertainment editor of the local paper, the Daily Camera, a man who clearly has a hearty appetite and a capacious sense of humour, publishes Jack Collom’s Spam acrostics. Here are a couple of them:
Suddenly masked hombres seized
Made her into a sort of dense Jell-O
Somehow the texture, out of nowhere
Produces a species of
Atavistic anomie, a
Melancholy memory of food
The acrostic is a well-chosen genre for the celebration of Spam. The word itself is an acronym, a telescoped portmanteau word, “spiced ham” conflated to a single syllable. Just as bits of pig flesh are packed into a can to make the product, syllables are cut up and compressed to make its name.
Invented words of this kind—and the synthetic products they signify—have a further affinity with each other. Spam and other venerable neologisms such as radar (Radio Detection and Ranging) and nylons (New York-London) evoke a lost era when synthetic products, the spin-offs of science, were new and good.
I don’t fancy Spam myself, I must say. It’s sad food, the reductio ad absurdum of carnivorousness. I can see, though, that to a certain generation it has a special nostalgic quality. And I’ll defend—if not to the death, at least at table—the right of John Bayley and Jack Collum and Julian Symons to eat it. In Jack Collom’s words again:
Second World War’s
The cult of Spam
You might have expected such jeux d’esprit as Jack Collum’s lyrics to blush unseen in the pages of the Daily Camera. But their publication there was not the end of the story. The fate that subsequently befell them reveals the disturbing rise of a non-ironic cult of Spam among those born yesterday—that is to say, long after World War II provided an excuse for eating the stuff.
Soon after the Spam acrostics were published in the Daily Camera they caught the eye of a reporter at the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The next thing Jack Collom knew, he was adorning a cover article devoted to the “large and passionate Spam culture”. Sales of Spam were on the rise, the article revealed. Spam jamborees were taking place in various states of the Union, including an annual Spamarama in Austin, Texas, the city that is home to the Hormel Foods Corporation, which introduced the product in 1937.
Down there in spiced-ham country, the article revealed, Spam is celebrated not only in verse but also in music and the plastic arts. There are Spam sculpting competitions and bands that play Spam anthems (“Stand By Your Spam”, “Stop in the Name of Spam”). The Times article noted, furthermore, that Spam had been proposed as the subject of the fourth annual Smithsonian Conference on Stuff (the previous year’s conference dealt with marshmallow.)
So Jack Collom found himself famous. And then, just as suddenly, infamous. It was noted that he was the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The next thing that happened was that The Star, a National Enquirer-style supermarket tabloid, picked up on the story and excoriated him for wasting taxpayers’ money. “Poet Gets $30,000 To Write Ditties About Spam” ran the headline. Jack Collum decided to write about other things for a while.
The prophet of pork
Then, not long after Jack Collom’s appearance in the New York Times, an article by the philosopher Roger Scruton appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. The article advanced a curious argument against the dietary prohibitions in the Book of Leviticus. It was an argument calculated to irritate Muslims and Jews—and vegetarians and logicians—but guaranteed to warm the hearts of the executives of the Hormel Corp in Austin, Texas.
When it comes to pig meat, Scruton argued, it is not just good to eat, it is blasphemous not to eat it. “The pig,” he wrote,
is affectionate and intelligent, reminding us of how like us the animals are; at the same time, however, his eyes are all but closed, and no Blick [gaze] can be perceived in them—hence he is powerless to touch the heart of his executioner, or to cancel our carnivorous desire. The pig also looks like food: a round, plump offering on sticks, ready at any moment to lose its individuality and slide down the metaphysical ladder from thing to stuff.
“Furthermore,” Scruton continued,
he tastes good and can be made to taste better, the more you work on him. He is the source of charcuterie, the highest of all culinary art forms, which surpasses in boldness and finesse anything that the Jews or Muslims, for all their ingenuity, have been able to achieve from their abstinence. It is charcuterie that inspired Zola to write Le Ventre de Paris.
Scruton concluded his contrarian fol-de-rol with a heterodox excursion into the realm of gustatory theology. “I cannot think,” he writes
that God’s purpose was rightly perceived by the author of Leviticus, and am even inclined to the view that, when it comes to the pig, there is something ungrateful, even blasphemous, in refusing to eat him.
These words of wisdom from the Prophet of Pork will bring comfort, I am sure, to those who work, unministered to and unapplauded, in the pork-belly industry. In the slaughterhouses of Austin, Texas, and other cities, where protesting pigs and sows are transformed, in their tens of thousands, first to things and thence to stuff, Professor Scruton’s name will be praised; his eloquence will lift the spirits of the workers. Undaunted by Blick, that deep, reproachful look in the eyes of their victims, they will be inspired to ever nimbler blows of the electric stunner.
Over at the Smithsonian, no doubt, they’ll be discussing an invitation to give the keynote address at their next conference on Stuff. And, though it is too late for this year’s Cheltenham Festival, we can surely look forward to seeing—at some future literary Spamfest—John Bayley, the Brillard-Savarin of tinned food, and Roger Scruton, the eccentric philosopher-omnivore, face-to-face with Jack Collom, the epigrammatist of Spam, in a public debate, under the sponsorship of Hormel Foods and the TLS. ★