Adventures in eating

I’ve always been intrigued by a rival to Spam that sits next to it on the supermarket shelves here. It’s called Potted Meat Food Product.

“Hey Dad, what’s for dinner?”

“Potted Meat Food Product, kids! With Tater Tots on the side and Hostess Ding-Dongs for dessert.”

When I was a kid, my parents were pretty poor, though we generally ate whole grains and other health foods, as they called them then. But on rare occasions, Mom would serve scrapple for supper, and we always regarded it as a special treat. It’s scary to think that there are probably families out there that have a similar relationship with Spam.


“Health foods”: what does it say about our culture than this is not a redundant phrase? Or take its more popular successor, “natural foods.” I always picture the Far Side cartoon with the hunchbacked guy walking into an Unnatural Foods store.

In twelve years of public schooling, my mother saw to it that I never had to eat from the cafeteria. Somehow she managed to put on a full breakfast for us every morning, pack four lunches (which always included my Dad’s thermos of homemade soup), and get us out the door in time to meet Dad’s 7:15 carpool. Just thinking about it makes me tired.

Our packed lunches were met with bafflement by the other kids. To them, we ate “shit-bread and birdseed,” whole-wheat bread and trail mix being basically unknown then except to those who shopped in health-food stores or baked their own bread, as we did. We also raised chickens, so Mom always included a hard-boiled egg in our lunches. I don’t think the supermarkets carried brown eggs then, either. You can probably imagine the offensive racial epithet some of the kids applied to our eggs.

There was no way to eat a banana in a school cafeteria without provoking a scene of high hilarity, every boy in the vicinity grabbing at his crotch and emitting howls of pretend agony with each bite. It was always a challenge to ignore this scene and stoically finish off the banana, resisting the temptation to make rude suggestions in return. Fortunately, Mom packed apples and oranges much more often.


We raised a pair of pigs every year for three years in the late 70s, but never made our own scrapple. I’m not sure why, since with all the cornmeal in it, scrapple definitely qualifies as a health food. Mom did make head cheese in a burst of enthusiasm the first year, 1976. The pigs were named Jimmy and Fritz, and we ate their brains.

We boys had lots of fun with the electric fence that Dad put up around the pig pasture. Whenever we were bored, we took turns grabbing and letting go of the wire as quickly as we could. The first person to get zapped by a pulse of electricity was the loser. And of course whenever we had company, we had to initiate the other boys into the mysteries of the magic fence. One female cousin became an inadvertent and decidedly unhappy initiate, too, as I recall.

The pigs came in for a little bit of testing themselves, after they got big and mean. One year Mom tried a new pickle recipe in which hot peppers were a major ingredient. She mixed it up in a 15-gallon ceramic crock that sat in the corner of the kitchen, and we pitched in a lot of green tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers. The longer they sat, the hotter they got, until at last even my little brother Mark, the most masochistic of us all, couldn’t eat them any more. You can probably see where this is going. One day when the parents were both away, we fed some of the pickles to the pigs, handing them in through the fence – “Here, pig pig pig!” – and being careful not to lose any fingers in the process.

The pigs reacted in seconds, emitting high-pitched squeals – shrieks, really – and I swear to God, their curly-cue tails stuck straight out behind them. They raced frantically around the pasture, then shoved their snouts into the dirt and rooted for all they were worth. We justified it as self-defense; they definitely kept their distance after that.

The conventional wisdom then was that parents shouldn’t let their kids name their animals if they were destined for slaughter, but it never fazed us. In fact, I think it was healthy, in a way, to know that the meat on our plates came from a being that had had a name and a distinct personality. We all shared responsibility for its death. We had a history with our food, whether it was tomatoes grown from seed or pork raised from piglets we had bought in the spring. It was about as far from Potted Meat Food Product as you could get.

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