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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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