I’m assuming there isn’t a person out there who isn’t familiar with the magical mystery luncheon loaf that is Hormel’s SPAM. Introduced in 1937 as an unsettlingly inexpensive dinner option for depresssion-era families, the infamous treat has been the butt of countless jokes, and is the shoulders of countless pigs. The product even had its name stolen in what is perhaps the greatest case of semantic robbery in history, but that is a story better-told elsewhere. Despite all of this, SPAM has – much like a cockroach – survived for generations, with little-to-no evolution. But this isn’t meant to be a piece on SPAM. Rather, I’d like to cover a similar yet different item which can be found in the “prepared foods” aisle, or gracing the shelves of the bodega, next to a dusty jar of Chicken Tonight.
I’m talking, of course, about “potted meat product.” My own introduction to this processed paste was thanks to the 1996 film Sling Blade, in which it is featured heavily as a staple food of the mentally-handicapped protagonist, played by actor and former human being Billy Bob Thornton. I remember asking my mother what it was, but – just like when a friend of mine asked his mother whether Richard Simmons is a boy or a girl – all she could say was “I don’t know.”
Although potted meat never achieved the pop-culture icon status of its colleague and cousin, it has been perhaps more influential in the realm of meatpacking, as well as the aggressive business of NASCAR sponsorships . After trying his hand at the gold rush, Phillip Danforth Armour quickly realized that the real money wasn’t in precious metals, but processed meat products! After all, the miners had to eat, and what more could a man want during a 24-hour shift of sweat, blood, and cave-ins than a can of stomach-and-brain puree? Mr. Armour’s genius quickly transformed Chicago into the meatpacking capital of America, and secured his seat as one of the great captains of industry. As a beefy bonus, Armour & Co. was able to use the “by-products” of the meatpacking process to make soap, which eventually lead to the creation of the Dial brand in 1948. I wonder if those hard-working soldiers down in the mines realized that the soap used in their vain attempts to clean themselves was basically the same stuff eating away at their lower gastrointestinal tract.
Who knows? The real point is that the dark mystery and coy subtlety of potted meat is exactly what lends it its charm. Sure, there’s an ingredient list printed on every can, but let’s be honest: you never really know what you’re going to get.
As it turns out, potted meat product is a lot of things: affordable, nutritious, spreadable, flesh-colored, and perhaps even self-aware. So don’t be afraid to grab a can the next time you’re quickly swiping that 20-pack of shrimp-flavored ramen into your cart before anyone notices. Or just scrape some off the bottom of a Church’s Chicken dumpster. Either way, you’re in for a Treet.