Back in January, before the pandemic, we lost a Python.
Writer, director, and Chaucer scholar Terry Jones was perhaps most famous for his portrayal of Brian’s mother in Monty Python’s Life of Brian—“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy. Now go away!”—and as the purveyor of, er, craft street food featuring SPAM.
In Terry’s honor, the illustrations for this post were offered as a prompt for write! in late January, 2020. Participants at the writing circles, as they so often do with the prompt, made SPAM their own.
Enjoy the resulting Borrowed Pages!
Memoir by Emilya Naymark
In the immediate aftermath of WWII, most of Europe was starving. Years of war devastated agriculture, and whatever resources were left were spent on the war effort.
Who to the rescue?
America! Food rained from the sky in gray boxes, stuffed with tins of condensed milk, coffee, and, most wondrously, SPAM.
My parents started the war as adolescents with their own parents, and ended it as young teenagers, orphaned and starving.
By the time I came around, life had improved, and they were both roly-poly, if not happier.
Leaving the Soviet Union opened for us not just the iron curtain, but a food cornucopia of global dimensions. Pizza, gelato, steak, spaghetti, peanuts, pita, oranges the size of my head, shrimp, hamburgers and French fries. Shakes! It was all interesting and worth a try.
One time in Vienna, we walked into a delicatessen and counted the varieties of sausages and bolognas hanging from the ceiling (thirty-nine). In the Soviet Union, there were two. One, which for some reason was called “the doctor’s bologna”, and the second one which was called “the dry one”.
But even with the bounty of fresh produce bursting from every grocery store shelf, our kitchen was never without at least five tins of Spam.
My parents ate it like pâté, spreading it on the fresh bread my mom bought every other day on the corner of Broadway and 30th Street in Astoria. They didn’t go for the fancy flavors, not the mustard Spam, or hot sauce Spam, but regular, original Spam in a blue container.
Although it’s considered a terribly weird food now, and most people I know have never, nor would ever eat it, I remember liking it quite a bit. Salty and fatty, with a solid gratification of protein, it has everything a human would want, biologically.
When I was little, my parents served it at dinner parties, on a china dessert plate, sliced for easy spreading.
A few months ago, I was sorting through my pantry and found, to my surprise, two tins of Spam.
Where did they come from?
Being an enlightened 21st century American, I certainly didn’t buy them. My husband denied all knowledge. Even though the expiration date was years past, I believe the meat stuff inside is still good. It was meant to last. That’s why airplanes could drop it onto fields, and it would still be good enough to serve at a birthday dinner party years later.
I will not eat the thing and I’m not going to serve it, but the tins sit on my shelf and sometimes I dust them and look at them.
Some cultures practice ancestor worship. They have a photograph of a parent or grandparent in a corner and they burn incense or leave little offerings before the picture, to keep that person’s spirit close and maybe enjoy its protection.
Although I know it’s not true, just like I know that Spam is terrible for you, a part of me believes that as long as those tins are on my shelf, my father’s love and protection will extend to the house and the family within it.
SPAM: instructions for its use by Juan Pablo Mobili
You may want to keep the can sealed and utilize it as a paperweight to bear down on your bad poems from fleeing in shame. The devout among you might consider cutting it in religiously thin slices and silently lay down a path on the way to heaven’s glory. Some may even choose to savor it fried, with a hint of dijon mustard that Gourmet magazine declared “the only way to attain an unique spam experience” but, please, note that if you are a true native son of Argentina you will be required to surrender your passport upon taking the first bite; don’t forget that years ago in a country quite different than this but also known as the United States SPAM was revered by the stars of television. The legend goes that George asked Gracie What would she say if a strange man Ever offered to buy her lunch. Those were mythical times when men believed their wives were one of their possessions. It was then that Gracie ever so gleefully looked into his eyes, and whispered George, dear, why don’t you shut the fuck up
Memoir by Cynthia MacDonald
Having grown up in the 1950s on the Northern Plains of Colorado, there’s nothing satirical about SPAM for me. My parents went through the Depression together and knew all about SPAM and acquainted their four children with it. We had cans of it in the cupboard.
My Mom used it in her scalloped potatoes recipe and we all gobbled it up. Left on his own to cook dinner, my Dad just sliced it, fried it and put it on plates in front of us kids—a step up from milk toast, the only other meal he made for us. It was horrible—just hot milk with torn pieces of toast in it, a meal he had served as an army cook. We hated it, but I don’t remember any of us not eating it. Our Dad prepared it for us. We cleaned up our plates.
We had a good life really. My Dad, born a Baptist, converted to Catholicism when he married my mother. He agreed to go to Mass with us every Sunday and eat fish on Fridays.
Despite that, he remained independent. When my sister Nancy was chosen Queen of Hearts candidate for St. Anthony’s School, Sister Dennis, her principal, wanted to raise funds for her candidacy for the Town of Sterling Queen of Hearts Contest by having a Bingo trournament. My Dad did not object, but he did not raise funds or attend. Baptists didn’t gamble, he told Sister Dennis at a meeting he arranged with her. She nodded her head.
He was the best electrician in Sterling, Colorado. His rival was Bozarth Electric. They often gave lower bids but lots of customers hired my Dad instead because he provided better service and they were willing to spend more money on superior parts. Lots of farmers in the area depended on him to keep their rotary irrigation systems running.
One of the most remarkable stories about him, though, happened much earlier during the Depression. He and Mom had just recently married. He was walking downtown and noticed a really raggedy looking bum approaching him. He considered crossing the street, but it was too late. Then suddenly he realized he was looking at his own reflection in a window pane. He couldn’t believe it. He was so overcome with the experience he went home to see my Mom. He sat down on the couch to tell her. He was really shaken.
Going through that time had to be so terrible. I’m so grateful my Mom and Dad made it through. I know many did not.
Poetry by Harry Palacio
Your notes letters of consequence, the phone calls, the numbering of lost fingers Your daughter of emails, your pressed hands and lips to bodies of duress The subterranean passages of restraint Los sonetos rígida como la breve baile de pájaro de Navajo Tu milagro sin question, mi hermana de España lenguaje formal son cuerpos de tu voz lastimada I’ve sent you a letter sent to your spam box, the Deus Ex Machina What war? La casa de abarcando Tus templos de lunares aún visto La paciencia de colloquailismo parte de mi cuerpo, sin y con medida Life sans death, birth in a city of longing I’ve sent letters home Sri Hari Krishna; all returned The gift of forgetful hands- your Rama of the finch- I’ve been here once too Mail me my physical copy of your bruised teeth marks on pamphlets Blue green limbs the pastoral I hear your mute hands the repose of Sanskrit mantras Does the candle burn at both ends? The sutra of your petals of longing or the ebb and flow of Ganga Your umber arm like mine grasping Meeting me halfway I’ve noticed the arc of your voice like tiny jazz in the rise and set of Surya Namaskar O Shiva I’ve read your letters, how we volley back and forth with our warbling I’ve come to know the temple of your raised brow the reasoning of compassion Without language.
Memoir by Denise Frasca
Spam sounds like a word that means block or prevent—her typing spammed my ability to think, the music in the restaurant spammed the conversation, her political talk spammed our friendship. I have Writer’s Spam.
That is true. I have not written anything of substance since 2016 and I have not written anything at all since November of 2018 when I ordered a book off Amazon called Around the Writer’s Block. I did exactly two exercises from that book before I gave up. A friend advised me to take up another creative medium because it would help me write again. I bought paint pens and took up rock painting. I did discover that I was a decent craftsman and had a knack for finding quotes short enough to fit on a stone, but no original writing came of it.
“Take a painting class,” my husband suggested. “Maybe painting a larger canvas will be like an illustration that sparks the story.” And it was true, my paintings did seem to each have a story—but they were complete in their own mediums. My pen had nothing to add.
Writer’s Spam is a terrible affliction, just like the terrible meat it is named for. The exercises you do, and the forty-five-minute free-writes in writers’ circles you show up for, never get to the real meat of your story and you are stuck with many small bits of writing mushed together in a notebook that you carry with you from place to place pretending you are a writer. It is your very own can of gelatinous mush that cannot please your palate, or anyone else’s for that matter.
From my art practice, I have learned that you have to do something every day to become good at it—or at least to be growing at it. I do write well, but I have not grown beyond my complaints about how I am unable to write. I am so out of practice that my hands hurt from just writing this for the fifteen minute start of a forty-five-minute stint.
Perhaps my Writer’s Spam comes from a lack of commitment, or lack of stories to tell, or perhaps it comes from a fear of getting to the real meat. When I look back at pieces I have written, I don’t even remember writing them. I sometimes wonder if they are someone else’s stories that I have collected. They are well-written, but they feel separate from me.
My best pieces are funny—or at least people tell me they are funny. Often I don’t mean for them to be funny—I am just telling the story from my point of view. I once heard a comedian say that most comedians are shy and they hide behind their jokes to protect themselves from judgment—and then ironically the judgment comes tenfold by way of laughter or silence. So maybe that is why so much of my writing is humorous—I am hiding behind it. Maybe at my age I am tired of hiding but it is too risky to come out, come out, wherever I am.
SPAM is an unappealing substitute for real meat, yet it has its allure. It has remained popular for years and has been an inspiration for Monty Python skits, Broadway plays and at least one writing prompt that I know of. Writer’s Spam also has its allure. It is the perfect excuse for not having the discipline or patience to sit down and wait for the stories to come. “I have Writer’s Spam. That’s why I haven’t written anything for two years.” TWO YEARS! Well, I have written tweets and Facebook announcements. People know me in a certain number of characters or less. And I get A LOT of likes, so that counts for something. I also get an equal number of pissed-off responses from the other side, so that might count for something as well. The fact that I often piss people off may be the biggest factor in my having Writer’s Spam. People react to my writing and that scares me—no, that petrifies me. My whole life I have said what I thought and then left the room, leaving everyone else, pro and con, screaming at each other.
I remember, in college, leading a protest still in my PJs. I decided I needed to get dressed because it was lasting longer that I thought it would. I turned to the crowd, fist high and made an inspirational speech, then trotted off to the dorm to change. I was hungry, so I packed a snack but when I returned everyone was gone. No, they had not disappeared because they lacked my inspiration. They had marched on with fervor. In my absence, they had all been arrested.
So maybe my Writer’s Spam is more about fearing the consequences of what I put out there—those consequences I have no control over.
Or maybe I’m just lazy. Either way, I do not like this Writer’s Spam. I do not like it, Spam-I-am.
Featured image: Holyspam152 © 2010 Joel Ormsby
Gallery images: We are really hoping that since these images appear as writing prompts for a non-profit, community arts effort, the owners will consider their use non-commercial and educational, at least for the space of a week or so.