The Truth About Spam by Patrick Ross

Don’t bother to search the luncheon meat Spam for human flesh. You won’t find it. Paul Theroux once wrote that former cannibals in the South Pacific developed a taste for the mystery meat because it had a “corpsy” flavor. But the kiosk sign I’ve just read insists that SPAM—I will now use all caps as per the manufacturer’s preference—is simply spiced pork shoulder. Letters blue and bold pronounce this fact with insistence, noting that the product’s name is a combination of “SPiced” and “hAM.” So much for the canard that the name actually stands for “Something Posing As Meat.” It’s comforting to know that were I ever to try a slice, I would not be consuming a lost relative.

There are many such kiosks here at the Hormel SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota. I learn that I can purchase SPAM in 47 separate countries. The slimy pink goo is spreading across the globe, a contagion engineered to outlive us all. A spotlight shines on a promotional poster for The Hormel Girls, a troupe of female World War II veterans who traveled the country using song and dance to promote patriotism and processed meat. Near the poster, a 1950s-style movie marquee lined with light bulbs blinking clockwise advertises the museum’s feature film, “SPAM: A Love Story.” The many interactive exhibits here promote a pork product many consider a punch line, but they do so without a sense of irony. The authenticity is refreshing.

This free museum is a pleasant diversion on a long, solo drive across the same country the Hormel Girls once traversed. I have already driven about 3,000 miles and have another 3,000 or so ahead of me, but despite road fatigue and longing for my wife– her lips, her hips, other parts not found in SPAM—I do not miss Washington, D.C. I have lived there for 23 years, but I still do not call it home. My sole tether is professional, tied to the rhythmic pulse of policy and politics. It is because Congress has shuttered for its annual August recess that I am free to take this cross-country sojourn. But my experiences on the road have awakened something in me, something dormant but alive. A hunger.

A whir above me signals the endless transit of SPAM containers, gliding along on an elevated conveyor belt. That round-cornered, rectangular can is iconic in our culture. Not even Andy Warhol, I suspect, could have seared it into our collective consciousness to any greater degree. But the product’s name has a new ubiquity in the digital age, a time when Nigerian strangers promise us untold wealth if we first wire a bit of our own savings. The etymology of “spam” as deceptive email stems from a 1970 sketch on the British comedy Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Python Players joined with a chorus of Vikings in singing in repeated staccato the word “SPAM.” The painful repetition of the word gave name to the bombardment of fraudulent solicitations that overwhelm our email inboxes.

I hear the Python song now and seek its source, admiring the museum curator’s willingness to embrace mockery of what the museum celebrates. In the next room I discover a blurry clip of the scene looping on a video display fashioned to look like a 1970s television. The Python Players belt the repeated lyric in high-pitched shrieks. I find myself singing along under my breath. I return to the innocence of youth, when I eagerly devoured this odd British import in my home 2,500 miles from our nation’s capital. A nearby kiosk informs me that if I were to open a can of SPAM packaged in the 1970s, the contents would still be edible, but not as tasty.

This unplanned museum visit is the result of a recommendation from a professional storyteller I interviewed earlier today in Rochester, Minnesota. He earns a living telling folk tales to children at Midwestern schools and festivals. The stories themselves are imagined—mice as a rule do not pull thorns from the paws of lions—but the moral lessons he delivers ring true. A stranger to me, he welcomed me into his home, introduced me to his son, and shared a moment of extreme professional embarrassment. It is a character builder, he said, to perform at a county fair before an audience of none, all the while staying true to the storyteller’s mission by continuing to spin the tale.

This trip is being financed by my employers, D.C. lobbyists who are paying me to record the stories of others. The mission of my bankrollers is to spin stories for policymakers. Lobbyists often tell fiction to convey what they insist is a larger truth. I am on this trip to find true stories, hoping to give my employers the added bonus of authenticity. What struck me this morning is the realization that the individuals I’m interviewing on this trip share themselves without expectation of reward from my Washington masters. My journey is teaching me that generosity is the twin sister of authenticity.

The SPAM train above me continues its endless loop. I press forward from the Python video to a new kiosk, one for the “Hands-On SPAM” interactive exhibit. I am instructed to start the timer, fill an empty can with the fake meat, “cook” it in the pretend oven, which is the same size as an Easy-Bake but lacking a light bulb, slip a label on the can, and stack it in a shipping box. When I pick up a sample of the pretend meat, I find it is a bean bag with a rubber exterior, polished smooth by the fondling of many hands. I linger, not ready to let go of the surprisingly comfortable toy.

I squeeze the play SPAM in my left hand, my middle finger almost reaching my thumb through the rubber and filling. I don’t question the fact that this assembly line is a fiction, because it presents itself as such. I find comfort in this spongy toy in my hand. It is real to the touch. It is real to me.

A few minutes ago I lingered at another kiosk, which told the story of another Minnesota-born phenomenon. SPAM makes no pretensions about what it is, and what it isn’t. But Betty Crocker, I learned, is a lie. A Minneapolis milling company invented the baking legend in 1921 as a marketing tool. After reading her story, I examined Ms. Crocker’s familiar portrait, this one her original image circa 1936. Her shoulders bespoke confidence in a perfectly tailored crimson jacket, while a lacy white collar softened her intense gaze. I looked into those eyes, resting just below thinly plucked eyebrows. Those eyes told me to dismiss the kiosk’s assertion, insisting I maintain my illusion of her truth.

I have, in my time in Washington, been invited to engage in fiction. A tasty assortment of treats has been offered as a reward. But as I stand at the interactive SPAM display and squeeze the play meat in my hand—as I feel its undeniable physical presence—I find myself craving spiced pork shoulder.


Patrick Ross is an award-winning journalist whose work has been published in newspapers and magazines such as The New Republic, the San Jose Mercury News, and U.S. News and World Report, and in literary journals such as Barely South Review and Shaking Like a Mountain. His blog, The Artist’s Road, was named a Top Ten Blog for Writers for 2011-2012, and he teaches creative blog writing at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Talking Like We Mean It by Erin McMahon

Our mothers and fathers and teachers and the rest of the villagers who raised us tell us to think before we speak. I interpret this as, “Make sure what you’re saying is a good idea,” and, “Be careful how you say things.”

This last phrase might become my epitaph. It’s true: I’m obsessed with word choice.

My biggest fear is neither dying nor being alone (although that one comes close). Instead, I am afraid of being misinterpreted and then, as a result, dying or being alone.

I face this fear nearly every day, as I try to be conscious of my choices. I’m misunderstood often. I’m human. It happens. But being aware of the way we say, not just what we say, can make a significant difference.

To show you what I mean, I’ll provide an example that’s been on my mind. I never noticed it until I lived in Spain. In English, it’s common to say something like, “Can I talk to Bob, please?” Or, “Oh yeah, Carol’s doing just great. I talked to her the other day.” We say “talk to” quite a bit.

I realized this when, in Spanish class, I accidentally said “hablar A” instead of “hablar CON.” I was corrected and sufficiently embarrassed. (In Spanish, hablar means to speak or to talk. A is a preposition that functions like the English “to,” just as con functions as the English “with.”)

In Spanish, there is only “talk with” and “speak with.” There are no alternatives. We can use these phrases in English, too, and it’s still right, but Spanish doesn’t even give people the option. My mistake got me thinking about what the English—talk to and talk with—implies.

In America, people talk to each other. Often. What I mean, of course, is that we talk at each other. We send out sound waves from our mouths so that they may hit other people’s faces. It works. I talk to people and they talk back. We bear our flags and send our words like messengers.

But talking to doesn’t really shout “conversation.” I talk to my dog, Wendell, all the time. But he doesn’t talk back. I sometimes talk to my brother, Paul, as if he were Wendell, and it’s the same story. Talking to is like an update on Facebook or Twitter: the sending of words without much thought.

On the flip side, talking with implies warmth, even intimacy. I’d like to think that Americans talk with each other as much as they talk at. I talked with my friend Caroline the night I decided to drop a class. I talked with my mallorquina friends about how we were going to keep in touch after I left Palma de Mallorca. I talked with my cousin about her recent engagement and her eagerness to start the wedding planning process. An intimate heart-bearing dialogue might not always be appropriate, but listening and sharing should be.

So what? So, maybe we should start acknowledging the difference between Twitter and human connection. I know, I know: Twitter is great and it has its function. Never has breaking global news been so accessible. But being re-tweeted shouldn’t be a priority over having a real conversation with my brother. Culture influences language, and language influences culture, so maybe we can approach this from both ends. Changing the way we speak might just help us better communicate, and changing the way we communicate might just change the way we think.


Erin McMahon grew up in Rockvale, Tennessee and attends the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, where she studies Spanish, Theatre, and French. In June 2010, she studied under Steve Vineberg and Ed Isser in Holy Cross’ British Theatre in Perspective immersion in London, UK. From September 2011 to June 2012, she attended the Universitat de les Illes Balears in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. She enjoys performing, practicing yoga, and praying to God that she graduates next spring. Upon graduation, she plans to study Spanish Golden Age Literature.

Syrian Dream, Arkansas, March 29, 2012 by Mohja Kahf

Swimming pool. Toddler boy drowning at the bottom of it. Suspended, at the bottom of the pool. Not struggling anymore. Still.

I see him distorted in deep water, wearing blue shorts and shirt. CPR could still save him! I am behind a glass panel, cannot get through. It is bashar al-asaad’s villa, wide white stone terrace. bashar’s three kids are asleep upstairs. I cannot hear through the glass. But I can see. I see the pool. I see the child.

Look again—now it’s fifty children in the pool, dead or drowning. All their bodies under water, some struggling, some already still. I cannot get through. Can only look through glass panel. Soundless picture, no noise.

Children, laid out on ground. On terrace stone. Clothed, wet, dead. Some on their sides curved at the waist. A girl, about eleven, twelve years. She’s twitching! Save her! But I can’t. Can’t get through the glass. Somebody, help! Help me get them. If I could get to the twitching ones at least. Help.

There’s bashar and his kids, a girl and two boys—on a stone ledge up above the bodies, sitting, looking over the terrace scene, dangled legs swinging.

Fifty dead children laid out. All still now, all dead. If only they had been pulled out before. I can only watch. Help. Help. Nothing I do has any effect on anyone in the scene. I am not seen or heard. Behind glass. That’s when I notice: the toddler in blue is my baby brother, mine, my brother Usama, when he was little, twenty-five years ago, only now he’s this toddler, and dead. This was the moment of his death. Sobs burst from me.

All day, I have forgotton the dream but keep sobbing.


Mohja Kahf is the author of The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf: A Novel. An associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas, she tweets for the Syrian revolution @profkahf.