Ellis seems ill.
Now mind you, I'm no doctor, nor have I ever stocked grocery shelves, but the symptoms are obvious.
Ellis has long lived with a pronounced dent in his side, suffered when Ed Lueninghoener accidentally sat on him while vacationing at the Grand Canyon.
He lives with numerous scratches and marks, the result of being baked inside a birthday cake by Phyllis Lueninghoener and being hidden beneath Christmas trees and taking trips to Georgia, Michigan, Iowa and then always back home to Omaha.
And worst of all, Ellis is — I don't know if there is any pleasant way to say this — well, he's oozing.
He has done so much in his 40 years in this world. He has graduated from Troy State University, according to the school's alumni directory. He has met Hillary Clinton, according to a photo in the Lueninghoener home. Most importantly, Ellis Lueninghoener, as he is known, has brought Christmas cheer to the lives of an Omaha family since 1974.
But now an invisible-but- sticky liquid is oozing from his insides and grossing out everyone who touches him. It might be time for Ellis to take Liberty Mutual up on the life insurance offer they mailed to him last week.
There's only one problem with Ellis buying life insurance, a problem that Phyllis clearly enunciated to a credit card salesman several years ago.
The persistent salesman kept calling and insisting to talk to Ellis. Finally, Phyllis couldn't take it any more.
“Ellis is just a can of lunchmeat!” she yelled into the phone.
“I don't think he understood,” she says of the salesman.
But it is true: Ellis is but a can of lunchmeat, and a discount one at that. He's also the centerpiece of maybe the strangest Christmas tradition you will ever hear.
The Story of Ellis begins all the way back in 1974, when newlyweds Phyllis and Ed were packing up their Omaha apartment to move to Macon, Ga. In preparation for their move, Phyllis was taking food out of the fridge and cupboards and putting it in a box to give to other relatives.
Phyllis' brother, Bill Ryan, had been staying at their apartment. He was helping them pack.
He saw Phyllis put a can of Ellis Danish Luncheon Meat into the box.
“Don't give that away!” he said. “They will probably feed it to their kids!”
To understand why the notion horrified Bill, you need to understand exactly what Ellis Danish Luncheon Meat was.
It was Spam. But not regular Spam. Knockoff Spam.
Ellis Foods once upon a time sold a whole line of food products, many of which were knockoffs of products like Spam, which were already really cheap.
“I ate Ellis brand spaghetti once,” Ed says. “It was worth it to pay the extra dollar for SpaghettiOs.”
Ellis, based in Denver, eventually merged with Stokes, another Denver-based food company, which specializes in Mexican and Southwestern foods.
Through a strange series of events and one overzealous operator, I eventually found myself on the phone with Jeff Nieder, president of Stokes-Ellis Foods.
I found myself explaining that I was writing a column about a 40-year-old can of knockoff Spam made by a previous incarnation of his company.
“I'm not at all familiar with that product,” Nieder said of Ellis Danish Luncheon Meat, after he somehow resisted the urge to hang up on me. “We're going back too many years for me. Never even heard of it.”
But in 1974, Bill Ryan knew all about Ellis Danish Luncheon Meat, and he watched, horrified, as his sister Phyllis put it in the “foods to give away” box. When she wasn't looking, he pulled it out of the box. He snuck it into a bag and took it south as he helped his sister and brother-in-law move to Macon. And once they were there, in the Lueninghoeners' new home, he took the can and hid it under his sister and brother-in-law's bed.
Ed and Phyllis returned the favor by baking a cake, hollowing out the center and hiding the can of Ellis Danish Luncheon Meat inside.
The Tradition of Ellis — the strangest Christmas tradition — had been born.
Some years, Bill wrapped up Ellis like a present and gave it to Ed and Phyllis on Christmas Day. Some years, Ed and Phyllis mailed it to Bill. Ed and Phyllis moved back to Omaha. Bill settled in Iowa. It was merely a fun family annual event, some weirdness to look forward to around the holidays as their children grew up.
And then things got weirder.
An old co-worker of Ed's, tired of receiving multiple copies of Troy State University alumni mailings, mischievously sent the school a letter claiming that her husband had changed his name to Ellis Lueninghoener and moved to Omaha.
Sure enough, the Lueninghoeners started to receive mail for Ellis. Credit card applications. Insurance offers. And requests for donations from Troy State University, of course.
“We should probably actually give them a few dollars at some point,” Phyllis says.
Ellis got his dent when Phyllis snuck him into Ed's sleeping bag as Ed prepared for a camping trip to the Grand Canyon. The first night, an exhausted Ed flopped into his sleeping bag and landed his butt directly on a can of knockoff Spam.
The letters kept coming. At some point they started to be addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Lueninghoener” as if Ellis had secretly married a bag of frozen peas. Then, years later, the Lueninghoeners noticed that the “Mrs.” had been dropped.
“Must have gotten divorced,” Ed reasoned.
Ed, who worked for years at Offutt Air Force Base, running the base's environmental program, actually stuffed Ellis into his coat pocket and took him to a change-of-command ceremony at the base. Why? Because the incoming military official had graduated from Troy State University, just like Ellis.
Oh, and Hillary Clinton: Ellis didn't actually get a photo op with the former first lady and ex-secretary of state. Rather, a Lueninghoener family member did take a photo with Hillary ... and then a jokester Photoshopped the family member out and stuck Ellis in her place. In the photo, it looks like the woman who may be the first female president in U.S. history has thrown her arm jovially around a giant can of knockoff Spam.
Just before Christmas 2012, Bill called the Lueninghoeners with bad news. He had packed up all his belongings, moved to a different house in Iowa, and unpacked. And now he couldn't find something important.
I lost Ellis, he said.
The Lueninghoeners were a bit sad. After all, Ellis has been with them, on and off, for four decades. They have taken calls on his behalf, and opened his mail, and put him in a Ziploc in their basement fridge when he got old and started to ooze clear liquid.
And so they were delighted in March when Bill sent them a gift basket for their 40th wedding anniversary. In that basket: a certain can of knockoff Spam.
I found him, he said.
So now Ellis Lueninghoener is back where he belongs, back in the crisper in the basement refrigerator, which is also known as “Ed's beer fridge.”
Ed and Phyllis had been brainstorming, trying to think of a new way to gift him back to Bill this Christmas.
And then I came along, asking after a can.
This Christmas they will wrap Ellis in a newspaper story about Ellis and present him to Bill.
Ellis lives. And now he's Omaha famous.