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Call me a jerk, but I can’t get enough of biltong (and all the other stiff meat that’s been hung out to dry)

I happened to walk into a shop near Richmond Park and found scores if not hundreds of withered and skinny dicks dangling from the ceiling.

It’s time to talk jerky! For too long now this column has pussyfooted around the issues and refused to give it to you, the reader, straight. The buck stops here. From now on we’ll call a spade like this: “Hey! Spade!” And when it comes we’ll use it to beat every cliché in the vicinity to death.

Yes, yes – I know we haven’t exactly shied away from discussing the sexual aspects of food, yet there’s always been a metaphoric cast to it. Some foods might be aphrodisiacs, just as others (if you squint at them or sniff them in a certain way), might seem like genitals. I was listening to Jay Rayner’s Kitchen Cabinet on the radio the other day when he observed – apropos of caviar – that there are hardly any foods that aren’t held to be either detumescent or arousing. With the possible exception of Shreddies.

I once asked the almond-eyed heiress of the Caviar House chain what was the best way to eat caviar and she obliged by digging a silver spoon into the glistening anthracite cylinder of a kilo of Beluga she’d just de-tinned; then, neatly depositing a fifty-quid dollop on the perfume-testing (or razor-slashing) portion of her wrist, she invited me to suck it up, while purring: “It must be eaten off nothing but bare skin.” Setting aside the grotesque idea there “has” to be a way of eating the entire ovarian production of a creature belonging to a species on the verge of extinction, this was mos’ def’ an aphrodisiac.

But if there’s one food that incites me to impure thoughts more than any other, it has to be dried or cured meat. If you cast your mind back to the Falklands war, not the least of our anxieties during those late spring months of 1982 was the absence of a prêt-à-porter meat snack in British corner shops and petrol stations. That deficiency ended shortly after our forces achieved victory, when a shipment of the comestibles was mistakenly rerouted from Germany and Peperami arrived on our shores. The pork sausage may be marketed with a portmanteau of “salami” and “pepperoni”, but it bears scant likeness to either of these foods, resembling instead a particularly long, thin and stiff . . . penis. OK, OK, I realise this is pretty crass (after all, what sausage isn’t phallic?), but there’s a distinction, surely, between encountering a phallic object where you expect to – at a butcher’s, say, or in your trousers – and coming across one dangling next to the Twixes and Mars Bars.

The penile aspect of Peperami is only enhanced by its packaging: not just the one thin, polythene condom, but also an outer prophylaxis of gaudily foiled cellophane. Nor does the snack’s long-running advertising slogan (“It’s a Bit of an Animal”) detract from its sexualised aura.

Looking back, it seems strange that Peperami ever caught on – after all, the late Eighties were typified by a Thatcherite return to Victorian values, so table legs were presumably being covered up even as we unsheathed our skinny pork swords. Now, of course, you can barely move in the average newsagent without running up against one meaty treat or another: packets of beef jerky rustle next to Slim Jims, Mattessons Reduced Fat Smoked Pork Sausage (yum-yum!) and Bundu Biltong.

On the subject of biltong – which often comes, Peperami-like, as a long, thin sausage – I was barely aware of this Southern African meaty snack, until five years ago when I happened to walk into a shop near Richmond Park, looking for a bottle of water, and found instead a sort of enchanted biltong forest, with scores if not hundreds of withered and skinny dicks dangling from the ceiling.

Biltong St Marcus – as it’s called – is still open for business, so if you fancy a beefy bite flavoured with anything from chilli and cumin to crack cocaine (OK, I made the last one up) then hie thee thither. Not that you’ll necessarily have to go that far; biltong is now available from a stall in London Bridge Station, and I dare say there are plenty of other outlets offering trail food to commuters. Because that’s what all these snacks have in common: they are designed to preserve protein for long periods so it can be easily consumed by travellers. It is said that back in the day a cowboy would cure beef by cutting a steak from a newly slain steer and slipping it under his saddle – but I have my doubts about that.

So why should foods designed for trans­humant pastoralists and hunter-gatherers come to occupy such a capacious niche in the diet of sedentary ­information-processors? I suppose the explanation Unilever (the current owner of the Peperami brand) might offer is that these are convenience foods – but surely, the convenience they embody is that of globalised supply lines: easy to pack and ship, while requiring less refrigeration both en route and on display, dried and cured meat snacks extend the range of products that corner shops can stock. At the same time, they further blur the distinction between sit-down meals and grazing on the hoof (if you’ll forgive the interspecific and cannibalistic metaphor). There’s that, but there is also the phallic argument: flaccid and impotent, the British office worker seeks to put some lead in his own pencil by sucking on one of these hunger-erasers. Poor fool! You are what you eat, after all, and anyone who eats a Peperami is, by definition, a sad little prick. At any rate, that’s how I feel every time I do so.

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 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State