Will Self: In defence of jam, that gooey ambrosia

Jam is not a food – it is the food and no survey of the true eating habits of our commonwealth would be complete without spreading this good news.

Photo: jamieanne via flickr.

“Jam,” my late mother was fond of saying, “is not a food.” This is just one example of what we, as children, viewed as her risible sen­tentiousness; another of her equally weighty pronouncements – and this was in the 1970s – was: “Don’t waste water.” While in the case of the latter Mum has been proved prophetic, not pathetic, when it comes to jam she was, is and forever shall be wrong. Of course jam is not a food – it is the food and no survey of the true eating habits of our commonwealth would be complete without spreading this good news. We may be lashed by wind and rain, but so long as the distribution chain remains unbroken and the supermarkets’ relentless price-cutting drive to the bottom of im­miserated Britons’ pockets continues, there seems no reason why we shouldn’t have jam today and jam tomorrow and even retrospectively dollop days gone by with the gooey ambrosia.

I usually start my day with a couple of pieces of toast smeared with jam. I say smeared, but trowelled would be closer to the truth; indeed, if I thought I could get away with it, I’d keep a plasterer’s hawk and trowel to hand in the cutlery drawer so I could apply the stuff more effectively, my aim being to create a sort of table mountain of confiture. Why, I hear you ask (all that sugar can get a man pretty high), don’t you simply dispense with the toast altogether? Well, sometimes I do. Creeping into the kitchen late at night, I’ll go for it armed only with a spoon – but this is shameless and decadent behaviour. Jam is certainly a food in its own right but it’s one of those – like caviar or foie gras – that requires another comestible pretext.

The analogy with these cruel and unsustainable snacks is not lightly made; for is not the widespread access we have to jam as much of a social safety net as the NHS or unemployment benefit? You may think it offensive and patronising, but let me tell you: when I offer the beggars round my way a jar of Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade rather than a couple of quid towards their next can of extra-strength lager, they often weep hot tears of gratitude.

There is in jam such implicit largesse – such natural beneficence – that I find it simply astonishing that anyone should want to keep it to themselves. And yet they do: once upon a time, children, you could go to a tea shop, or plonk yourself down at the breakfast table of a B&B, and presently a small aluminium dish of jam would be plonked down in front of you. Those days are long gone and we’re condemned to live out the balance of our days in a purgatorial scraping of jammy bits from the curved corners of plastic containers.

But I say: what sort of individual could possibly survive on such short commons? Not me – not you, not anyone. Even the dear little upmarket jam pots punted by the likes of Tiptree are still woefully inadequate and I often find myself creeping from table to table in quite august establishments collecting up enough jam to make a glistening fist of it.

Last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms by Bono for filching several teensy pots of apricot conserve from the tables occupied by representatives from sub-Saharan African countries. “How,” he inveighed, “can we expect to end world poverty while you’re behaving in this hateful, selfish fashion!”

I gave as good as he did: “Stick to dog food, Bonio,” I told him as I feverishly delved and smeared. “Anyway, what can you possibly know of hardship? It’s probably in your concert riders that you be permanently supplied with a dedicated conserve chef.” He looked a little uncomfortable at this – so I could tell I’d hit the mark.

Still, I wouldn’t leave the toast lying face-down on the floor of the debating chamber and kept on: “Besides, these chaps are all Wabenzi who’re probably skimming the collective jam pot for their own pockets. If you want to do some real good in this world, instead of hobnobbing with the rich and powerful you should load your private jet with Robertson’s finest and deliver it straight to the refugee camps.” They were strong words, but utter nonsense, of course. Food aid is a terrible blight and a corrupting influence and so – as my mother would doubtless have pointed out – is jam aid.

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