In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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MICROTONES by John McCracken, contributor
This past Saturday, I was minding my own business, running errands, when I unwittingly found myself enjoying a long-running, grotesque Madison tradition. A few blocks from the corner of East Wash and North Street, friends, neighbors, and confused folks such as myself and a Channel 3000 reporter gathered on a sunny afternoon to compete in the 25th annual SPAM Carving Contest.
Since 1994, David Pouncey has been gathering cans of processed meat, hanging SPAM-based decorations, and inviting Madisonians to get their hands dirty. The competition is divided into three categories: with props, without props, and bizarre (which, if I may split hairs, should really encompass everything that transpires at a SPAM carving contest). Throughout the years, carvers have created such classics as SPAM-ual Clemmens and SPAMossarus Goes On Broadway. This year, adherents of this Midwest marble served up fierce entries to compete for SPAM-branded prizes such as a SPAM portable amplifier, SPAM-flavored lip balm, and a SPAMjo, which is a banjo made out of, you guessed it, SPAM.
Apart from the overpowering smell and sense of delirium, this year's festivities were a huge success. The carving was accompanied by the slapstick musical routine of the St. Andrew's Sisters, a trio of nuns with a penchant for puns and nonsensical songs. The trio hails from Austin, Minnesota, otherwise known as SPAMtown USA, and makes a habit of performing for whimsical crowds by cracking jokes and rulers alike. But apart from the silliness, they gave a heartfelt performance of tunes that reminded people to be kind, neighborly, and caring.
After the event, Pouncey took some time to explain why this gathering of "meat"-carving enthusiasts exists. " I really can't stand SPAM,''s says the man who has been coordinating and planning these contests for over two decades. "We started 25 years ago after I had seen somebody in Seattle have a contest similar to this, and it just kind of inspired me.
"We're getting larger and larger every year, more creative, and the entries that we have just blow me away sometimes," Pouncey adds. Some of those entries include this year's winning carvings. To take the Without Props grand prize, Michael C. skillfully carved a slab of SPAM into a celebration of the past 25 years. Scoring the With Props grand prize, Rachel presented "The Return Of The SPAM Goddess" which depicts a pig risen from the grave, seeking revenge. Lastly, the winner of this year's Most Bizzare grand prize was Chuck with his regurgitating nun, a lifelike simulation featuring real-time pump action that simulated a nun vomiting the day's focal meat.
"One of the rules of the SPAM carving contest is that nothing is sacred, and that is always honored every year," says Pouncey. After watching the winner of the Most Bizarre category in action, I can assure you this is true.
"My father worked for Hormel Meat Company for 37 years. We had Hormel products in the house far too often and I just grew to detest it," Pouncey explains. "The eating of SPAM is strongly discouraged." So, why SPAM? "The one thing about this particular medium is that even though it's grotesque and repulsive, there's something of beauty within if you look hard enough. That's what we see on the tables here."
For Pouncey, the 25th was the best gathering of SPAMheads, disgusted onlookers, and neighbors yet. "We had a great crowd, live music for the first time, and we still have beer left," he says. A general sense of merriment was coursing through this event. People of all backgrounds, ages, and more were invited to try a carving themselves, meet their neighbors, and even step into Pouncey's home, where they could find drinks, good food that was not made from SPAM, and an eclectic collection of tchotchkes ranging from a staircase full of nun figurines to a bathroom encased in horror-movie paraphernalia.
While taking a break inside the house from the sometimes too on-the-nose comedy of the Sisters, Kyle, a first time visitor, told me he had always heard of the event, but have never been able to make it. In a sense of shock, he said: "This is the wackiest day of my life. Seriously, I don't know if I've ever had a weirder day."
New this week:
Madison musician Trent Prall reflects on a few songs from his project Kainalu.
Grant Phipps reports on the Underground Cinema series, a new effort to plant a flag for experimental film in Madison.
On the Tone Madison Podcast, a delightful catch-up with Shane O'Neill of Screamin' Cyn Cyn And The Pons.
The Record Store Dropouts podcast interviews producer Main Sequence about his plunderphonics-driven music.
Scott Gordon breaks down two infuriatingly bad takes on Madison's debate over cops in schools.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Salt Fat Acid Heat author Samin Nosrat will give an October 23 talk at Overture Hall. Madison stand-up Kevin Schwartz performs on America's Got Talent. Regent Street might be getting a bookstore-bar. Apply for the Bubbler's Thurber Park Artist Residency. Wash released a video for its song "Ritual."