November 2019. I cannot speak for how it felt to be in the world then other than my own experience. I was a recent grad who was floundering in the professional world. I had started a job as a hostess at a certain well-known Los Angeles sushi restaurant (not Nobu) and was miserable. I would wander around Beverly Hills trying to ingest as much caffeine as I could before my next shift started and of course I spent every free minute on my phone. To others that time was maybe their last few months of peace before the pandemic started but for me, looking back, it almost seems like I was waiting for the pandemic to happen. Biding my time until the world changed. I had not settled into any kind of post grad life and really never would with any regularity.
There was also the pesky matter of the election. The democratic primary was still anyone’s game and everyone online was being insufferable. Iowa was still four months away at this point so we were all just talking. Hoping in the endless conversation someone would fuck up and we wouldn’t have to think about them anymore. Every single day we were bombarded with fights that simply did not matter because everyone had already made their choice months ago. The only thing to soothe our aching souls and ease our wandering minds was a simple question: Is Salami ok for cats?
In the middle of this never ending news cycle we had this sterling image and its variants floating around. Is Salami ok for Cats? And it’s response “Cats can have little a salami” seemed to keep us sane, or at least was an outlet for our insanity. The frenetic energy of the world at that time was poured into these cat memes. The pandemic changed the way we meme and I have yet to see something as creative as the “Salami Boom” was. Every single social media platform from Tumblr to Facebook was giving their best shot. Cats can have little a salami was everywhere and any person who could find a way to contribute, did. The Salami Boom is also indicative of the way mass consumption of a meme can smooth its edges. It can take away the good weird parts and make the meme more palatable. However the Salami Boom is unique because removing those edges did not stop the meme from continuing to be weird and fun. It’s life on the internet continues to be weird, just not in the original way.
It is important to me to spell this out before I deep dive into the meme. The point of the original image is that the answer, given by google, is “Cats can have little a salami”. The messed up word order is important. It makes the reader think that someone without a great grasp of the English language wrote it. Someone like… a cat. This is illustrated by the image directly under it of the cat typing at the computer. It is the most widely spread and expanded upon version of “Did [x animal] write this?” A foundational and fundamental part of this meme is the idea that the cat wrote the phrase “Cats can have little a salami”. Or at least it was.
The more popular the meme got the more people dropped the word order element. To many people, Cats can have little a salami was just about cats eating salami. They did seem to get the gist that the cats wanted the salamin and would do anything to get it but they weren’t buying into the idea that cats were behind the whole thing. For some of us this meme was about cats and the power that they have over people. Some memes are detail oriented and are made richer the more online one is and the more we pay attention. When the meme was limited to the most online, it had a constructed narrative that we all bought into. When the meme grew, more people created around and within the phrase, but the narrative was dropped. Very rarely does a trade off like this pay off.
The world of “Cats Can Have A Little Salami” is fuller and broader than the original phrasing. When not tied to the narrative of the cat at the computer, people's minds are allowed to wander. This meme before was limited by its narrative and therefore word order. While I’m still partial to the original, this meme would not be as popular had the original stuck. Drop the “little a” It’s cleaner. As much as I would like to live in a world where we can keep the original, I know we don’t and sacrifices have to be made. In the case we gave the meme over to the normies at a price, and it worked.
This meme, like every meme, is helped by the presence of the titular cat. Not every cat meme hits, but when they do hit, they hit hard. We have so many internet cats to choose from that they all have to give their take on whether or not cats can have a little salami. What does the icanhascheezburger cat think? What about the edited sad cat? What about your own cat? Can they have a little salami? We went hog wild with this meme because we love our cats and we think they deserve a little treat sometimes. They live in our houses and they’re our best friends. Why shouldn’t they get to eat a little salami, as a treat, just like we do?
Another part of this meme is the question itself. Can cats have salami? Answer correctly. In pretentious religious terms, Can cats have a little salami functions as a shibboleth. Only true believers knew the answer. In tumblr terms, that would send a shiver down one’s spine, It functioned the same way as “I like your shoelaces.”. We have a shared language on the internet. Do you speak it? We used this answer to not only identify the online but also the cool. Bernie supporters made memes about how Bernie would say that cats can have salami as a treat. It wasn’t about Bernie knowing the meme and responding correctly but having the heart to say yes of course, they can have a little, as a treat. The compassion Bernie has for his people would extend to their cats. If we can have healthcare, they can have salami.
Finally we have the ethos that gives the meme its staying power. The phrase that still bounces around. “As a treat”. We have become a treat based culture. The consequences from that one episode of Parks and Rec live on. Alternatively it could have been the popularization of the language of “self care” without any real definition as to what “self care” meant. Regardless, now we all believe in regularly giving ourselves treats. Anything particularly difficult or unpleasant requires a treat as a reward. We love to get ourselves little treats, as long as we acknowledge that's what they are. The goat cheese I always buy for myself? A treat. My $8 coffees? A treat. The Uber Eats dinner I cannot afford but order anyway? A treat after a long day.
Everyone I know is like this. We believe that after experiencing the horrors of everyday life we deserve a cookie, and we do. Society is collapsing, the world is falling apart, there’s nothing we can do, maybe a cookie after a particularly upsetting experience is allowed and even encouraged. I love when someone I follow on twitter posts something like “I can have a little spaghetti carbonara from the expensive italian place, as a treat”. It’s nice to see people being kind to themselves. Cats can have little a salami as a treat gave us the language to best express giving ourselves a not too extravagant treat. Just little a salami.
“As a treat” is also used to criticize politicians and world leaders whose actions don’t match up with their words. People frequently post the ironic takes of Trudeau can have a little brown face as a treat and Amy Klobuchar can have a little beating her staff with a stapler as a treat. Our treats affect us and our bank accounts. We pay the consequences for our luxury and selfishness by ourselves. The politician’s treats are much more dangerous and affect all of us. This also gives us the language to mock those in charge and the way they adopt internet slang to seem relatable and normal. It’s a way to call their bluff. In a world where we are inundated with the ruling class trying to seem relatable, we are giving them what they want but we are dragging them down with us. It can only be made very clear how different their treats are from ours when we force them to use our language. My treat is a new pair of shoes, theirs is an oil pipeline.
Cats can have little a salami is a mother meme (like a mother sauce, not like for mothers). It crosses platforms and with each entrance into a new platform, it grows and leaves something behind. It affects real life and can flourish in many different spaces. It still exists in some capacity and everyone would welcome it’s revival. It was our last great pre-pandemic meme. It can be easily placed in the before times. It had no covid overlap and left the public consciousness once things got too dark. It was an image based meme where the text was the most important part. There was no singular house style for this meme. The only elements that were absolutely necessary were cats and salami. Everyone from the Reddit incels to the Buzzfeed moms could participate and find enjoyment in each other's efforts. When faced with the existential question “is it ok for cats to have salami?” We all came to the same answer. Cats can have little a salami. Or a little, depending on your persuasion.