Illustration by Jackson Rees.
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Pot Noodle: Nietzsche’s snack of choice and the food of both man and superman

I know the concept of this column is that I eat the sort of stuff that we all eat and comment on it, but there are limits.

“To get up in the morning, in the fullness of youth, and eat a Pot Noodle – now that’s what I call vicious.” So Nietzsche wrote in 1889, shortly before his complete mental breakdown. Some scholars have attributed the collapse to the philosopher’s aggressive consumption of this instant snack food. He had already condemned the German people – in Ecce Homo, his crazed “memoir” – as bovine consumers of beer and sausages from whom no refinement of thought or feeling could be expected, and his move to Italy had been driven by a love as much of pasta as Palestrina. Still other scholars have pointed out this glaring anachronism: 19th-century gentlemen of Nietzsche’s class would have regarded it as an unforgivable solecism actually to get up in the morning themselves – that’s what you had a manservant for.

Oh, and there’s the Pot Noodle thing – Golden Wonder didn’t actually launch the brand for another 88 years, which means that I for one would still favour the syphilis explanation. However, I agree it is hard to reconcile this with the many references to Pot Noodles throughout Nietzsche’s work, including four stanzas of Thus Spake Zarathustra wholly concerned with pouring the boiling water into the pot. No less an authority than Walter Kaufmann has hypothesised that these references were a “time capsule”, sent by the philosopher to his future readers, so that when the brand was launched in 1977, they’d realise he was right all along about eternal recurrence and the circularity of history.

With Pot Noodle, it’s certainly the case that what goes around, comes around. I mean to say, it has long been regarded as the Millwall FC of comestibles (“No one likes us! No one likes us! No one likes us AND WE DON’T CARE!”), a status confirmed by a 2004 survey, which identified it as the most loathed brand in Britain. Advertising that played ironically to this negative perception, such as the “slag of all snacks” campaign of 2002, hardly achieved what the marketers probably wished for: a fast food so pestilential and bad that it became sort of good and hip. Nevertheless, Thatcher is dead, Tony Blair’s gone grey, and yet Pot Noodle not only remains but 155 million of the pots are manufactured every year in Caerphilly. Walking into my local sub-post office this morning (we 21st-century gentlemen are up with the lark), I saw a file of them standing to my attention on a fusty shelf and in a moment of pure Nietzschean will-to-power I snatched up a Beef & Tomato flavour one, stalked to the till and handed over my £1.09.

“You better watch it,” said the man I choose to regard as my postmaster: “some people say that stuff can lead to fascism.” “What?” I was incredulous: “You mean Pot Noodle?” “No,” he wearied back at me, “Nietzsche’s philosophy.” Back at home I scrutinised the writing on the pot. The slogan on the foil lid read “NO Artificial Colours OR Preservatives” – I started to sweat with anxiety and pathetic ressentiment, but then I saw all my old favourites still listed in the ingredients and sighed with relief; after all, what would a Pot Noodle be without lashings of monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate? After that it was all plain sailing as I followed the instructions to the letter; “IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE,” read another cheery slogan on the pot, and indeed it wasn’t. Nevertheless, concocting a Pot Noodle snack is so very simple that as I tore off the foil lid, removed the sachet of tomato sauce and then poured in the boiling water my head began to spin with fervid possibilities. Why not customise my Pot Noodle? I could add porcini and truffle oil – I might fricassee some lamb sweetmeats and chuck them into the mix; I could do just about anything, in short, to further water down this dish, which sat on my desktop looking so very sickeningly real.

It’s still sitting there as I type this – albeit looking a little clotted and malevolent, like the surface of some alien planet. I know the concept behind this column is that I eat the sort of stuff that we all eat and then comment on it, but there are limits – I haven’t actually supped a Pot Noodle since the late 1970s, when they were a key element of my student diet. So key, in fact, that due to overzealous Pot Noodle consumption, contracted while poring over Nietzsche, I developed an allergy to monosodium glutamate which stayed with me for over a decade. It’s gone now, but like the good Nietzschean I am, I believe in the eternal and Grecian verities, such as don’t tempt fate.

In 2005, Unilever (which had acquired the brand from Golden Wonder) launched a new ad campaign for Pot Noodle with the slogan: “Have you got the Pot Noodle horn?” Many complained about this crass association between sexual arousal and instant noodles. In one of its more enlightened judgements the Advertising Standards Authority rejected these complaints on the grounds that because Pot Noodle was so closely associated with Nietzsche, and it was well known the philosopher had in fact died of syphilis, there could be no snack food more likely to lead to detumescence.

I’m not so sure, because wasn’t this the same Nietzsche who presciently aphorised: “Love and hatred are not blind but sickened by the Pot Noodle they bear with them”? Answers on a pot, please.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear