It is 8:35 a.m. and I am sitting near the back of the classroom in the public school I would eventually be expelled from. Among the usual classroom odors of chalk and industrial disinfectant and what we would later learn was particulate matter from asbestos, I can smell the mixed bag that is the 2nd grade lunch: baloney and nuclear age yellow mustard; raw celery and carrots; leftover supper of unknown origin and . . . something else. I cringe as I recognize that all-too-familiar smell of potted meat, dreading my reduced capital at the lunchtime sandwich swap. The combo of pink colored mystery meat with Miracle Whip squished between two slices of Wonder Bread awaits me. Long after the roaches have reclaimed the earth, this combo will survive as the undeniable 9th wonder of the postmodern/mortem world. I am clearly able to eat this delicacy because of a 1969 National Academy of Sciences finding that “mechanically separated poultry products” were okay for us to consume. Among the three varieties – Armour, Libby and Hormel, Armour was a family favorite. For some reason, we eschewed all Hormel products, because, um. . . quality counts.
The potted meat sandwich can take us back centuries. A cursory search for articles on the internet related to potted meat turn up plenty of fascinating reading material from a diverse spectrum of food writing: from food poisoning and botulism to food cultures and preparation. One of my favorites is a 1886 report authored by William Couchman (no pun intended), put out by The Vegetarian Society and entitled, “How to Marry and Live on a Shilling a Day.” Mr. Couchman’s abstract speaks for itself:
“In this paper I have three distinct objects in view, all tending to the one end. The first is to show, that a Vegetarian diet is best for man; the second, that it is cheapest; and the third, to show, especially to my younger friends, how by this cheap and healthy mode of living, they may carry out the great end of social life – marriage. Surely, if these advantages are actually afforded us by the system of diet which I advocate, nothing more need be said to commend it to acceptance.”
Nice formula: vegetarian diet + cheap food + marriage = a well ordered society. Now who could argue with that?
During the Spanish American War, Armour poisoned thousands of soldiers with contaminated meat. So there is some truth to potted meat’s connection to botulism. Ironically enough, Armour rebounded in the late 1940s by turning the soap byproduct from their meatpacking operations into the name brand, Dial, to which they added a germicidal agent. The modern deodorant soap was born.
Within a decade of the Czech revolution that brought us the world’s first poet president, I traveled from Prague to Brno and then found myself on the bus to the tiny village of Kyov. The bus dropped us off and I was amazed at how small a hamlet this “town” was. We turned to contemplate options: Next bus not due until five that evening and it was 1:00. I could see from one end of the town to the other from the threshold of the vehicle. It was going to be a rather long afternoon. What to do? Get back on the bus, or head into the microtown for an afternoon of café surfing? The bus pulled away, moving ever south toward the Moravian border sputtering black particulate matter into the air. We were staying.
Ever hopeful, we turned and walked toward the center of town, taking a slight right past what looked like a butcher shop. This took all of five minutes. We turned down a side street and at the end of the block: a mirage. The sign above the door said: ROCK CAFÉ SOHO. I’m not kidding. And it got better. We walked into the bar and sat down at one of the tiny tables. A man smiled broadly at us – the kind of smile you reserve for an old friend. We were suspicious. He apologized for his broken English, we were shamed by our little bit of Czech, which amounted to how to say “perfect” and “take me to the square,” all phrases from Fodor’s 1994 edition, before Lonely Planet guides for foodies would grace the shelves of our Bay Area bookstore. He offered us the local favorite: Budweiser Budvar. I looked at him over my glasses – the evening seemed to be headed for that slippery foodie slope.
Nevertheless, we nodded a polite yes to the Budweiser. And then he introduced himself. His name was Igor Judas. I’m not kidding. Of all the places in the Czech Republic, and we wind up in a pub called Rock Café Soho run by a man named Igor Judas. Not Casablanca, but things were looking up. The beer arrived and so did Igor; it was frosty and around twenty ounces per bottle. I saw a hangover in my future; Igor saw an opportunity for a better education. He wanted to know if he could invite a few friends to the bar to meet us – they were all practicing their English together and since my friend was of Czech descent, maybe she wanted to learn some Czech? Sure, bring it on.
Four bottles of Budweiser, six rounds of singing, and two vehicles later, we were at Igor’s house and on offer was a lovely repast of mystery liquor and a tin of potted meat product. I am back in that 2nd grade classroom. As Igor spoons out the Czech version of a childhood nightmare, I grab a cracker and balance a healthy amount on the end. Thank god for locally produced olive oil and the kind of hunger that comes with an impending hangover. I taste it and am actually surprised — potted meat is not so bad at three o’clock in the morning. I like it. It must be because it’s European potted meat. The blend of tripe and assorted animal slaughter byproducts are sautéed in a nice white wine from an up and coming region of Italy or France.
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I am a long way from that potted meat sandwich, but I remember my mother’s small hands, the smell of her Chanel No. 5 and the plastic baggie laid gently in my Wonder Twins lunchbox. There is little joy in mechanically separated meat product, but the memory of mother-love and new friends around a small government-issued tin of mystery meat can shorten the distance from here to there, can draw love from suffering.