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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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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.