(Not a) Lotta Spam (in the Stores Right Now)

Empty Shelves, Spamily, and Our Savior

This one comes to us from Christine Havens.

Early on in the period of stock-up shopping, before Austin, Texas, imposed its stay-at-home order, I went to my neighborhood Randall’s in the northwest part of town. Rounding the corner into the canned meat/soup aisle, I halted, flabbergasted—there were no cans of Spam on the shelves. Not one. In normal times, stores are stocked full of those unmistakable blue cans with the bright yellow logo. Let me repeat: there were none. No Original, no Hickory Smoke, no Low-sodium, no Hot & Spicy. Not even any generic or competitors’ brands. All gone.

Though my hankering was going to go unsatisfied, my funny bone was being tickled. I burst out laughing. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, that often-reviled, that “deplorable” (to quote a recent conversation with a good friend) foodstuff was now on everyone’s must-have list. Rarely have I met anyone outside of my family who will willing admit that they enjoy eating spam (I’m excepting the state of Hawaii, where around 6 million cans are consumed annually).

For me, it’s not only a comfort food but one also grounded in grace. In eating it, I reconnect myself to who God has formed me to be by way of my Grandpa John. My grandpa learned to love Spam when he served in the Coast Guard, stationed in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. For all the jokes now made about it, Spam sustained both military and civilians around the globe in a very anxious time.

My grandparents owned a small grocery store in rural Iowa—Little John’s Souperette—and each summer, I spent two weeks with them. From an early age, much of those fourteen days involved working at the store, itself a sacred spot for me. Lunch generally consisted of whatever canned goods might be dented, yet often a mysteriously, or should I say, miraculously, dented can of Spam appeared when my grandpa went to check the shelves. This meal was never fancy—just bread for sandwiches, with chips maybe, and a brown-speckled banana (green bananas were for customers)—but they were times of communion. Grace was said if my grandmother joined us, but grace was present no matter, even if the younger me did not yet know to name it that.

My Grandpa John loved Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which was still new to American TV in the 1970s. Staying up late with him to watch it left an imprint on me that remains today. The Spam skit still plays in my head each time I pass it in a grocery aisle, let alone eat it—the late Terry Jones and the late Graham Chapman. God’s work in my later life is linked, I believe, to these Spam-filled moments—even to leading me to a Christ-centered life when well into my mid-life (a story for another time). Suffice it to say that medieval studies took me to Western Michigan’s Medieval Institute in 2011 for a conference where they’d arranged a performance of, you guessed it, Spamalot. That led to Seminary of the Southwest in Austin and a thesis about the Grail Quest and the Tour de France with the Pythonesque working title of “Men Without Coconuts.”

Now, in these strange times, these post-Resurrection times, the passage in John 21, where the risen Christ cooks fish for Peter and the other disciples a couple of weeks after they have seen him crucified, comes to the fore. Standing in the store, I’m amused by imagining that scene now, with slices of the pale pink meat in place of fish, sizzling over the charcoal fire our Savior cooked for his friends. From there it is not difficult to picture Christ standing at a stove, doing a little Spam fried rice in a home where at least one person does not currently have a job. Perhaps that bright blue can came to the home from the food bank. Perhaps it is dinner in a homeless camp.

Whatever the reason, the shelves are being emptied of Spam; my rather smug laughter is tempered by these thoughts of Christ. Since many of us have not experienced a church-based celebration of the Eucharist in what feels like a long time, perhaps we might recognize the presence of Christ in unlooked-for places, as the disciples did on the edge of the Sea of Tiberius. While in nowise the body of our savior, this convenient food still bestows life, despite its reputation as not very nutritious and not the most Earth-friendly. If nothing else, maybe others are (re)discovering the Spam skit online and laughing amid the anxiety. Humor and Spam are where my Grandpa John and I found grace together. “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for this food, Amen.”

Or as I like to say now before meals: “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay God!”

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3 responses to “(Not a) Lotta Spam (in the Stores Right Now)”

  1. BS says:

    Can we exchange SPAM recipes?

  2. Christine says:

    I don’t have many—I tend to do Spam fried rice or just in scrambled eggs or just fried slices. What are some of your favorites?

    • BS says:

      SPAM, Velveeta cheese, butter, and brown sugar wrapped in tin foil and cooked over coals or baked in the oven. We call them “box-cars”.

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