Here’s a subject line you don’t expect to see in your Inbox: SPAM Entrepreneurs from Indiana.
The thing is, I already knew the joke. The email, from my pal Pete Fleischman, referenced a story he’d related on a molasses-slow afternoon of smallmouth fishing on the Menominee River a few summers back—a story so preposterous on the face of it, and yet so obviously true, that as Pete was telling it my mouth fell open. It pretty much stayed that way for the duration of the tale, and for several disbelieving minutes after.
The body of Pete’s email read as follows: “I was organizing my file cabinet and found the menu that my friend Stiffy put together before we went to Weasel’s strip club. This is the menu that we passed out to the owner, strippers, and patrons when we put on our act …”
You might want to pause here to swirl that around on your tongue and let the flavors develop.
The menu itself was attached. The cover simply says The SPAM House; the two inside pages are divided the way a standard steak house/supper club menu would be, with the headings Appetizers, Soups, Chef Specialties, Les Entrees, and Deserts (sic). Of course this was back when SPAM was all about the salty, smoky, fatty, artery-occluding goodness of processed pork and pork by-products, not shorthand for something potentially hazardous that you consume at your peril.
Getting back to the menu. Under Appetizers, it lists such delicacies as SPAM on the Half Shell (in season) and SPAM Rockefeller, which is described as “Fresh SPAM topped with Spinach, Imitation Bacon Bits and Velveeta Cheese. Baked to Perfection!” New England SPAM Chowder headlines the Soups section, while Chef Specialties features Leg of SPAM—“Roasted the way you like it; served with Mint Jelly”—and SPAM ala Oscar, “Sauteed SPAM with Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks and canned asparagus topped with Velveeta Cheese. A Gourmet’s Must!” Among Les Entrees are such standouts as Beer Battered Icelandic SPAM, Stuffed SPAM Chops (“Two large Iowa SPAM Chops stuffed with savory SPAM dressing and braised till tender”), and SPAM Diane (prepared tableside).
Finally, under Deserts, the choices include SPAM Jubilee, Baked SPAM Alaska, and even SPAM Soufflé (Please allow 45 minutes).
With this insanely inspired menu as a cover and invented identities as, yes, SPAM entrepreneurs from Indiana, Pete and his crazy-ass friend, Stiffy, waltzed into a northern Wisconsin strip joint called Weasel’s, spun out a line of B.S. a mile long, and leveraged it to receive the VIP treatment from everyone—and I mean everyone—in the place. This included a dancer who called herself “Luscious Leslie” and another named Natasha who claimed Russian provenance and signed her photograph “With Love & Hugest Touchings.”
You can’t make this stuff up.
Like I said, the fishing was slow. We’d had some spotty action in the morning but in the afternoon the Menominee, by any measure one of the greatest smallmouth rivers on the planet, went as dead as the moon. This is the confounding thing about smallmouth bass: Despite their aggressive reputation—the word “pugnacious” often comes up—there are times when, for no reason that you can persuasively put a finger on, they simply shut down. You can run every fly in the box over, under, and around them, vary your retrieve until the cows come home, and none of it will make a damn bit of difference.
A fat live leech dangled an inch off their nose would probably do the trick but a guy has to be able to live with himself in the morning.
We were fishing river left—the U.P. side—slinging our bugs towards the deep slots along the Menominee’s cobbled shore and working them back about a third of the way to the boat. Lift, haul, and repeat. The hiss of lines in the air, the glug of poppers on the water. Pete stood in the bow; I held down the stern. Nate Sipple, a stout young man of sturdy character and relentlessly sunny disposition, was on the oars.
The day had turned hot; what breeze there was had stilled; the air hung heavy as Great-Grandma’s curtains. Our ambition blunted by the wilting heat, the lack of interest from the fish, and the erosive influence of a couple of ice-cold Tecates, Pete and I fought the smothering lassitude and dutifully soldiered on.
Read: Continued to go through the motions.
I don’t recall, exactly, how Pete came to tell the story of Stiffy, Weasel’s, and their big SPAM adventure. I do know it wasn’t one of those “Did I ever tell you about the time?” deals. It seems to me we’d been talking about our experiences fishing the lake country of northern Wisconsin—the land of the muskie and the walleye, where Capone had his hideout and Dillinger exchanged hot lead with the FBI—and also comparing notes about various “Up North” cottages we’d rented. Place-names that loom large in the sporting mythology of the Badger State were mentioned: Boulder Junction, Eagle River, Sayner-St. Germain, Three Lakes.
In any event it was a story that Pete sort of sidled up to—taking his sweet time, easing up from downwind. It grew so naturally and organically out of the conversation, in fact, that at first I didn’t feel the hook go in. Then Pete said something that yanked me sideways.
“Wait a minute,” I said, stopping mid-retrieve and letting the current sweep my line downstream. “Your wives dropped you off at a strip joint?”
“We only had one car,” Pete shrugged. “They wanted to go to a movie in Eagle River and Weasel’s was on the way.
“Anyway, Stiffy had printed up this …”
“His name was Don, but everybody called him Stiffy—you can guess why. He was a cook in the Army—he cooked for a general in Viet Nam—and after he got out he knocked around the restaurant scene in the Valley working as a chef. He was good, too, but he was such a wild man that he could never stay at one place very long. He’d get fired, lie low for a while, then turn up at another restaurant.”
“Yeah, I know the type.”
“He had his issues,” Pete acknowledged, mending line, “but he was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known. There was never a dull moment with Stiffy. Anyway, a few days before our trip he’d had this SPAM menu printed up. Everything on it was made from SPAM, even the desserts.”
“Oh my God …”
“I know! Then he concocted this scheme to pose as SPAM entrepreneurs from Indiana. ‘Just follow my lead,’ he said.
“So, we go into Weasel’s. It’s a pretty nice place, actually; sort of has that knotty pine, Northwoods lodge feel. Stiffy shows the guy at the door one of our menus, introduces us as SPAM entrepreneurs, and tells him we’d like to speak to the manager. He takes us back to an office, where we meet a guy who turns out to be the owner. Stiffy launches into his spiel about the incredible profit potential of SPAM….and the next thing we know we’re being introduced over the P.A. system, getting a table right in front of the stage, free drinks, the whole nine yards.
“Free lap dances, too, although we did sprinkle some tip money around. We were supposed to be high-rollers, after all.”
Pete proceeded to add some juicily salacious details that are best left to the imagination. At that point, having gone a little numb, I blurted “This is the most unbelievable story I’ve ever heard.”
“You had to know Stiffy,” Pete laughed. “The amazing thing was that we kept up the act, totally B.S.’ing everybody in the place, until our wives got back from their movie. We suddenly heard over the loudspeakers ‘To the gentlemen from Indiana, your ride is here.’ I still have a copy of the menu in a file somewere—and a couple Polaroids of Stiffy and me with the dancers. I’ll have to try to dig them out one of these days. That Russian girl, Natasha, was really loaded for bear …”
His voice trailed off. Neither of us had thought to make a cast for a while, and for a time neither of us spoke. Even young Nate, who normally keeps up a constant peppy chatter, seemed at a loss for words.
At last I piped up: “I’m almost afraid to ask this, but whatever happened to Stiffy?”
“That’s a sad story,” Pete sighed. “A few years later he went off the deep end, left his wife, and disappeared. We lost track of him for a while, then we heard that he was living on a beach in Venezuela.”
“Seriously? Doing what?”
“Who knows? Chasing women, smoking weed, drinking like a fish—Stiffy being Stiffy. He wasn’t in Venezuela long, though, before it all caught up to him. One day his heart crapped out and he dropped dead.”
“Geez, that is a sad story,” I said, reeling up to get my line out of the water and dry off my bug. “And now Weasel’s is gone, too.”
“It is? When did that happen? I haven’t been up that way in years.”
“There was a fire in the early aughts—you could see the hole in the roof from the highway—and as far as I know they never re-opened.”
“Damn. I kind of wish you hadn’t told me that …”
We floated along in silence again.
“Well,” I finally said, “there’s only thing left to do. Nate, would you mind grabbing a couple of those beers for us.”
“You got it,” Nate said. The driftboat shuddered to a stop as the anchor found purchase, then swung fractionally in the current like a leashed pointer testing the breeze. Off the bow, a braid of bubbles gurgled merrily downstream. Nate opened the Yeti, fished around in the icy slurry, and retrieved two glistening cans of Tecate. He produced a lime, too, and a sharp knife to cut wedges from it. He cracked open the cans, stuffed a lime wedge in each, then handed one to Pete and one to me.
“Here’s to Stiffy,” I said, raising my beer, “and to Weasel’s, and to the legend of the SPAM entrepreneurs from Indiana.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Pete said, raising his beer.
We both took long, thirsty swallows. The beer was as cold as beer can be, and Lord, did it taste good. Still, there was something about Pete’s story that continued to perplex me, something I just couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around. I looked across Nate’s head, fixed Pete with a questioning stare, and said, “I can’t believe your wives dropped you off at a strip joint.”
“Believe it,” Pete said, smiling. “I’m blessed with a very tolerant spouse.”
He took another swig of beer. “All bets would be off, though,” he said, “if she ever caught me trying to bring a can of SPAM into the house.”