Lisa Myers

Lisa Myers

Memories of Spamtown

 

"Whereby Deer Becomes Venison"[1] - Carl Beam

 

My personal experience with a canned meat product similar to spam started as a small child, I remember the block of processed meat sliding out of its can onto a counter top, then my mother slicing and frying it up.  I only really remember having it this one time while at a cabin near Shawanaga. That memory fades in comparison to an experience in 1998 during a road trip from central Ontario to Montana, my girlfriend and I decided to take a random exit off the highway to find a motel for the night. It happened that we turned off in a town called Austin, Minnesota. Unknown to us at the time, the most intriguing part of this sleepy Midwestern town, besides the biker bar and the friendly locals, was its title as “Spamtown USA”, home to Hormel Foods Corporation, the manufacturer of the canned meat product, Spam. Coincidentally, we also arrived in time for the annual Spam Jam weekend celebration. I didn’t stay for the jam but I gathered a few facts about Spam from locals who worked at the factory. First, I learned that Spam contains a lot of fat, as one guy leaned over to me with wide eyes and said “Don’t eat it” and second, the name Spam stands for “Special Product Austin Minnesota.” Originally produced to feed soldiers during World War II, Spam was an affordable food item with a long shelf life and that has since gained global popularity.

                  I tell this story to introduce Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s collaborative online cookbook/artwork, the NDNSPAM Cookbook: Celebrity Edition (2011), embraces Spam as a catalyst for storytelling in the form of recipes.[2] This volume invites viewers to stand at the stove and enjoy celebrity recipes and commissioned Spam art projects. Her written declaration provides the main premise of her project:

                  Also known as, indian steak, spam, klik, kam, bologne and/or any other processed meat has gained popularity and widespread consumption within Aboriginal communities since the early 30s. Though not part of our “traditional” diet, processed meat has been embraced due in part to its affordability and widespread distribution within our communities. As the champions of adaptability and warriors of survival, Indigenous Peoples all around the world know how to make things our own.[3]

 

L’Hirondelle re-claims and re-appropriates a common, budget-conscious food item (one that was a government issued ration of  “commod” or commodity foods sent to reservations) as a strategy for not only emphasizing the act of making the best use of what resources are present, but also employing the NDNSPAM Cookbook as an email listserv. This listserv offers communication for messages that can range from “political to ceremonial to humorous to musical.”[4] For years, L’Hirondelle collected all the junky chain emails she received from other Aboriginal people and observed the distribution of these emails.

                  L’Hirondelle embraces the unwanted spam email as a strategy to encourage communication. It demonstrates her tendency to invert meaning and find use in what most would discard. An absolution of sorts underlies her equation of unwanted spam email and the processed meat her mother cooked for her as a child. As she explains, “I felt somehow vindicated when I realised that I wasn't the only person who ate that meat.”[5] Collecting and disseminating the recipes of Spam with an online cookbook further expresses this quest to come to terms with Spam as a shared food experience reflective of L’Hirondelle’s self identification as a “nomadic mixed-blood.” 

                  This strategy of inversion changes the meaning and essentially the use of an object or material, brings to mind Jimmie Durham’s description of the adaptation of materials and tools introduced by Europeans. He writes that every “object, every material brought in from Europe was taken and transformed with great energy. A rifle in the hands of a soldier was not the same as a rifle that had undergone Duchampian changes in the hands of a defender.”[6] In terms of L’Hirondelle’s online cookbook, her re-appropriation and reframing of Spam takes the kitsch aspects of the product into a realm purposed for an Indigenous audience. Merchandise such as crochet-topped tea towels and cups in the shape of the Spam can design all display the NDNSPAM logo.  L’Hirondelle’s logo design includes vibrant versions of the four sacred colours – yellow, red, blue and white. The design includes a white silhouette of a bison with a thought bubble full of stylized designs of four-legged animals in hot pink. The title NDNSPAM is two-tone, with hot pink for the letters NDN and bright lemon yellow for the word SPAM. The use of the bison in this design signifies what was once a major source of food from an expanse of land across North America.

                  Referencing the bison in the NDNSPAM logo speaks to an important reverence for the animal as a symbol of cultural knowledge and a source of nourishment important in the preparation of a portable dried food called pemmican made from dried meat, marrow fat, maple sugar and dried berries. Pemmican also raises an interesting point about the absence of roles and activities around food preparation. Dr. Danny Musqua, Elder in the Saulteaux nation and honorary degree recipient at the University of Saskatchewan, describes the year-round process of making pemmican. In the spring, berries were picked and dried, and then buffalo or moose were killed at a certain time in the late summer so that the meat was lean and it would dry efficiently in the wind. Firewood was cut and stacked in the winter in preparation for the early spring when maple sap was boiled to make maple sugar. All the ingredients were ground together with marrow fat to make pemmican, a portable high-energy food.[7] This narrative of pemmican preparation conveys the importance of time, season and place in relation to food preparation. This leaves me thinking through the question how does context, like season and place, factor into manufactured food commodities.

Through vivid descriptions of colour and texture, L’Hirondelle conveys her sensory exploration of foods from her childhood:

Our mama always said, “You’ll shit if you’re well fed” but that was just her way of saying don’t waste food. “Quit your belly-aching and clean your plate up. Don’t go to bed on an empty stomach. If it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger and as long as we got water we got soup.”

Sliced and fried, soft edible pink. Soft but not like the sponge, not melt in your mouth like the hard of sponge toffee. Coral coloured but not precious or semi precious. Not rare, or on occasion it was everyday fare, it was common. Salmon pink but not salmon, not from the sea, not spawning upstream, not even chicken of the sea though it was canned and opened often. Edible and served as soup, steak, sandwich, sausage, gruel, we called it valium stew. Generous dollops of ketchup made palatable macaroni floating around bobbing canned peas in a familiar sea of stewed tomatoes. Plated turquoise melamine devoured harvest gold copper-toned kitchen fluorescent orange crochet and macramé amidst an urban whitewash where the buffalo no longer roam. Home sweet home.[8]

 

Although Spam, as a mass produced food product, reifies placelessness and homogeneity, L’Hirondelle refers to spam in the above “recipe” to describe her experience of watching and learning the techniques of spam cookery, thus imbuing this canned meat product derived from her childhood food memories with a meaningful context. Beyond childhood and road trip memories the NDNSPAM project creates a virtual Spamtown that draws attention to common food connections of Indigenous people from all over Turtle Island (North America).



[1] Text from the Carl Beam painting titled, Transubstantiation and A Side View 82. (1982) Refers to the idea of nature becoming inert, and I see this phrase illustrating the acculturation of food items.

[2] The NDNSPAM Cookbook was commissioned by Tribe Inc. centre for evolving aboriginal media, visual and performing arts, located in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

[3] Cheryl L’Hirondelle, “About NDNSPAM,” http://lists.artinjun.ca/mailman/listinfo/ndnspam. Accessed November 23, 2010.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cheryl L’Hirondelle, email correspondence with the author, March 8, 2011.

[6] Jimmie Durham, A Certain Lack of Coherence (London: Kala Press 1993), 108.

[7] This description is paraphrased from a public presentation by Dr. Danny Musqua, during the North American Indigenous Food Symposium in June of 2009 at Muskoday First Nation, Saskatchewan. For the purposes of this paper, I briefly outline the process but must emphasize that a detailed description of the skill and breadth of knowledge required to make pemmican is much more extensive.

[8] Cheryl L’Hirondelle, email correspondence with the author, April 8, 2011.