Holly Gibson, curator of the private Potted Meat Museum, recently took her first bite of Spam and declared it slightly salty, but mostly bland. "It doesn't taste outrageously disgusting," she observed. Baked dry on a Triscuit, the sliced square had darkened to a deeper, more forbidding shade than bright pink, fresh-from-the-can Spam, the smell of which, she says, compares unfavorably to cat food.
It was Gibson's first taste of any species of tinned mammal, though over the last 12 years she's collected more than 134 different kinds of meat in cans, beginning with a Plumrose Danish Ham. Back then she was a starving college student on a Christmas visit to her grandmother's house in Ocala, Florida. When grandma foisted off on her the nonperishable contents of a gift basket, Gibson, anticipating more desperate days, snatched the fruitcakes, cheese logs, and ham and squirreled them away in her suitcase.
She never got hungry enough to eat the ham, but carried it with her to several different apartments over the years. In 1992, on a beer run, she and a roommate were stopped in their tracks at the store by a bin load of Armour Potted Meat Food Product, priced to move at four cans for a dollar. Horrified yet fascinated by the main ingredient, "partially defatted cooked pork fatty tissue," they took a can home and displayed it alongside the original ham.
At Christmas a friend made it a trio with a gift of Rose Pork Brains with Milk Gravy, and others soon followed suit. In 1995 she received a dozen donations--chitterlings, sardines, corned beef, deviled ham--which she displayed proudly in her apartment. Gibson, now a Web designer, had an aesthetic interest in the labels, which usually presented the contents in what she could only imagine was an unrealistically favorable light, with cute, chirpy names and anthropomorphic mascots. But she never dared open a can. "I've always thought it was pretty gross," she says.
At first she cheerfully accepted all brands, from San Pedro Jack Mackerel to Goya Beef Tripe Stew to Celebrity Sliced Bacon. Recently she's become more selective, seeking out international brands and exotic flesh, and scorning "meatpeats," unless the company has redesigned its packaging (she has three cans of Bryan Potted Meat Food Product, all with different labels). Many of her benefactors send her cans from trips abroad. Presently, she's attempting to persuade an Asian foods wholesale distributor to send her some spicy goose-foot webs and smoked cobra. Meanwhile, she's scouring ethnic groceries in search of goat in a can.
"I'd love to get some sort of canned insects," she says. "At this point I'm more discerning. Somebody gave me a jar of pickled pigs' feet and I threw it in the garbage. I didn't want to see it. I prefer to keep my distance from the meats."
Other pieces in her collection include Finest Brand Beef & Iron Wine, Sweet Sue Canned Whole Chicken, Tom Piper [sheep] Tongues, Roland Shark Fin Soup with Crab Meat, and Coastwise "naturally organic" Wild Arctic Musk Ox. She also has a few antique tins won in eBay auctions, including a large bucket of Krey Pure Lard, a beautiful porcelain bottle of Poulton & Noel Home-Made Potted Meats from the 1890s, and a 12-pound tin of Esskay Quality Pure Pork Sausage.
Gibson's July 2000 acquisition of a can of "Scotch haggis flavored with Drambuie" marked the culmination of a four-year search that began while she was attending acting school in Edinburgh. Though revolted by her flatmates' late-night haggis snacking, she was determined to find a canned version. Scots, however, appear to prefer their sheep stomach fresh, and a scan of Edinburgh stores proved futile. But, says Gibson, "If people eat it, people can it." Stateside, she kept up the search, E-mailing haggis producers until she finally found one that canned the stuff. It's illegal to import haggis into the United States, but her accomplice eluded customs by packaging it with some Scottish wafers and labeling the box "Scottish gift basket."
The cans are artfully displayed in glass cases in Gibson's Lakeview apartment, but for years only her inner circle had the privilege of gazing upon them. Last month she decided to take the museum public, and designed a Web site (www.pottedmeatmuseum.com) that displays photographs of the cans along with text explaining their provenance. The site also contains links to other on-line meat collections, though none are as comprehensive as hers. She's tried to befriend her fellow collectors, but for some reason none have responded to her E-mails.
"I E-mailed that Mike guy," she says of one of them. "I found his Web site about four years ago and was like, 'Hey, I have this potted meat collection. Let's be buddies.' And then for a few minutes I had this sort of girlish notion like, 'I wonder if Mike Epstein is my soul mate.' He went to Harvard. He's gotta be really smart. I'm just like, 'Oh, an intellect from Harvard that collects meat! How dreamy! Oh, Mike Epstein and I are going to have this potted meat collection together. Wait until we tell our friends how we met and fell in love.' And a couple months later he posted on his Web site a picture of himself and I'm like, 'I'm not in love with Mike Epstein anymore.'"
Her long-range goals include a road trip to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, where she hopes to convince curators to give up their 70s-era can of Spam with cheese chunks. "I would love to just retire from my job and travel the world and curate my collection. I would love to have a putt putt course with my meat museum." She imagines a chrome Airstream trailer filled with glass cases of canned meats. But for now, she says, "I like to have them in my house. It would be very upsetting to me not to have them."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.