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The Rites of Spam
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, January 26, 2000.
For Joanne and David Dickson.
An American family in South Pasadena invited me to live rent-free on their Mediterranean-style estate for six months while they were looking for someone to lease it (“the ultimate in California Living,” according to the brochure) for $9,000 a month. I was encouraged to eat whatever canned or leftover substances I could find and sleep on any available surface. In exchange, I agreed to make the owners’ friends laugh and to disappear during 9 a.m. real estate tours. (Much of the time I had the whole place to myself and could be seen scurrying from room to room, or tiptoeing down the outdoor spiral staircase to the pool.)
Court jester by day, at night I labored tiplessly as a bartender at Igby’s Comedy Cabaret in West L.A. So when Dave Dickson, the South Pas family‘s chief financial officer, accepted a job as a high-powered executive at Hormel, the Minnesota-based manufacturer famous for grinding pigs into tin cans, I was hired to tend bar at his Fortune 500–style going-away party.
On the day of the party, I woke up in the early afternoon to find that undetected intruders had smuggled in several hundred cans of Spam and stacked them into a slick, 7-foot-high pyramid in the foyer. And left me alone with it. In the kitchen, I found more Spam — a dozen or so extrapyramidal cans (40 mg cholesterol, 750 mg sodium per serving) — and fried some up with a couple of eggs as brunch. It was my first Spam since childhood, and even for someone as accustomed as I’d recently become to canned goods and leftovers, it sparked only the meagerest fires of inspiration. Salt, yes, good, and the texture of good old-fashioned American mammal terrine. Moreover, 2 percent of my recommended daily allowance of iron and enough sodium nitrite aftertaste to line my alimentary canal well into the 21st century. Better only than going hungry, this Spam.
By nightfall, I‘d slept most of it off and, in an undercover White Shirt and Tie™, was pouring champagnes and liquors for the engorged gentry. The party, concentrated in the “parklike rear yard,” as the brochure would have it, was the sort widely unattended by socialist upstart artsyfartsies such as myself. Middle-aged wealthy white Protestant people of all races, colors and banks milled about the poolside lawn, and around the lavishly canopied tables, in black ties and red or blue dresses. Real live aristocracy. Women with 35 years of expensive perfumes coursing through their veins flirted with me (or perhaps just with my White Shirt and Tie™) as I filled, over and over, their fluted crystal stemware.
Around 2:30 a.m., after the guests had returned to their castles in Connecticut, Minnesota and Rome, Dave Dickson, me and my friend Brad (Dave’s daughter‘s boyfriend, who’d arranged my jestership) sat burbling in the Jacuzzi, gargling expensive champagnes direct from the bottle and passing around a pristine slab of Spam we’d liberated whole from its can. We circulated this pink, gooey chunk of salted pig choppings as we would a peace pipe, biting off sloppy clumps and toasting them down with champagne, the unwealthy artfolk drinking the executive’s beverage of choice, the executive eating, for a change, the product of his execution.
Just a few weeks after the party — scant moments after Dave Dickson assumed his vice presidency at Hormel — misguided citizens desperate for Fortune 500 lives began to pack the world’s tin computers with pork byproducts. Thanks to the high concentration of Monty Python fans among their victims, unsolicited crap that clogs the Internet’s arteries soon came to be tarred with the epithet spam.