Schools exist to teach our children and home exists to fill their heads with nonsense. And it is strange, is it not, how the latter has more staying power than the former? In spite of all those geography lessons I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the capital of Greenland, but the sayings learnt at my mother’s knee are ingrained on my mind forever. “Always wear clean underwear in case you’re run over by a bus”; “Never wear a jumper indoors or you won’t feel the benefit when you go out”; and “If everybody else jumped off a cliff, would you?”
Mealtimes were particularly fertile ground for such advice. Some sayings were cautionary – “Don’t swallow the apple pips or a tree will grow in your stomach” – but most of them, at least in British households, were aimed at cajoling children into eating their food: “If you haven’t got room for your dinner, you haven’t got room for your pudding”; “Think of the starving children in Africa/India”; and “Eat up your crusts or your hair won’t curl.”
The last was surely the most nonsensical of all. Even to a child, it must have been recognisable as the ultimate in empty threats: not just because of its sheer implausibility from any kind of rational or scientific point of view but also because it rested on the false premise that any child would want curly hair in the first place, with all the extra haircare and painful grooming that implied.
With this in mind I have been transfixed by the arrival in my local London supermarket of an extraordinary new product called Hovis Invisible Crust, supposedly the world’s first truly crustless bread. (Other crustless breads are ordinary bread with the crust cut off, whereas the Hovis product is baked in such a way that no crust ever forms.)
Hovis has developed the bread in response to research showing not just that most children hate crusts – nothing new there – but that in 63 per cent of British households crusts are not eaten, either because parents cut them off or because children leave them. So it seems British children are less influenced than ever by the threat of non-curling hair, or else a diet of junk food, sweets and fizzy drinks has left them with such bad teeth that they have only their gums left to chew with.
I imagine many readers will be appalled by the idea of crustless bread. What next? Eggs without shells, bananas without peel skin and pies without pastry? It is completely at odds with the trend towards more authentic eating, as seen in the growing demand for organic food, the spread of farmers’ markets and the international expansion of the Slow Food movement which stands for everything fast food is not.
The notion also seems to reflect a stupendous laziness on the part of consumers. Have we really become so indolent and torpid that we cannot even manage to chew, or cut off, the crust on a slice of bread? You begin to understand why, at $99.95, one of the best-selling products at The Sharper Image’s online gadget store is a winding machine for self-winding watches that run down because their owners’ arms do not move enough during the day.
And yet . . . I must confess that my reaction to Hovis Invisible Crust is nostalgia more than disgust. It takes me back to the glory days of the 1960s and the space age when we were filled with excitement about where technology was taking us.
If space rockets could take us to the moon, what else lay in store for humankind? We imagined a world in which we would all fly around with jet packs on our backs, robots would do all the work, meals would be replaced with food pills and people would live in space colonies on Mars.
Almost none of it happened but we did, fleetingly, come close to living on food pills. In an astonishing outburst of creativity, the food industry decided to move with the times by developing a range of space-age products. What we ate at home started to take on a remarkable similarity to what we imagined astronauts ate aboard their rockets where, in the absence of trees, fields or animals, food had to be a product of technology.
In Britain we had an array of dried, packaged substances that miraculously turned into food on contact with water: Marvel milk powder, Smash dried potato, Surprise Peas, Batchelors Cup-a-Soup CORRECTand (substituting milk for water) Angel Delight, a vaguely mousse-like dessert. Under the Vesta brand, entire meals were sold in dehydrated form: you could tour the cuisines of the world with packets of Vesta Beef Curry, Vesta Paella and Vesta Chow Mein.
One thing these products had in common is was that they were completely vile. But that is hardly the point. They stood for faith in progress, a belief in science and a hope for a better future; in other words, modernity. Now, in the postmodern era, we seem to hanker after the past rather than the future: witness the growth of religious fundamentalism, the proliferation of retro trends in fashion and culture and the strongly felt preference for the natural over the synthetic in almost everything, especially food.
So I salute the arrival of Hovis Invisible Crust. To you it may seem the ultimate in bad taste in every sense of the phrase, but to me it represents a poke in the eye for postmodernism, a triumph of human ingenuity over nature and a glorious reassertion of our belief in the possibility of a better tomorrow.
Oh yes, and it stops the kids moaning. Shame about those curls, though.
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