You say potato, I say spud, but the teenager sticks with pizza

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

The Spudulike experience had a refreshing honesty about it.
The Spudulike experience had a refreshing honesty about it. Photograph: Getty Images

I have the impression that Spudulike has been in steady retreat for some years now; their website lists a modest 45 outlets blobbed across the forked mash of the British hinterlands, but surely this cannot be the zenith – as it were, the high melted-cheese-mark – of their empire? Back in the 1980s, Spudulike was a name to conjure with – so long as what you wanted to magic up was a gale of laughter. But even being the butt of snobbish jokes requires a significant cultural presence and 45 outlets don’t seem fit for purpose. No, poor old Spudulike – I cannot forbear from dramatising its predi - cament as a version of the title sequence of Dad’s Army, with the plucky little spud harassed by Von Schlieffening formations of KFC, Pizza Hut and Subway. My teenager and I managed to run an embattled outlet to ground in a city-centre food court, where it was encircled by these other, victorious practitioners of Nahrungkrieg.

My teenager sneered at the very idea of Spudulike: “It’s like calling a fast-food joint in India Riceulike. Of course you aren’t going to like it when it’s your staple-bloody-food.” Yes, it was a more innocent time when a couple of Edinburghers fed up with their jobs opened the first Spudulike. Back then, in the early 1970s, the idea a simple baked potato could be a quick, easy and tasty source of nutrition was greeted not with cynicism but unfeigned delight. Then again, in the same period Jimmy Savile was hosting a regular Radio 1 talk show, Speakeasy, that gave troubled teenagers the chance to talk about their problems to the nation . . . and him.

My teenager took his custom to Pizza Hut but I squared up to the Spudulike counter and found myself lost in an orthographic fugue: I could’ve sworn that back in the day Spudulike was rendered Spud-U-Like, but the only remnant of this in the current signage was the lower-case italic “u” picked out by a circle. Tasteful, I thought, rather than tasty. The woman in the red T-shirt and baseball cap asked me what I wanted, and I found myself prevaricating between the prawn cocktail filling and grated cheese – which would have to be the classic version of Spudulike’s sig - nature dish. “Er . . . what’s in the prawn cocktail?” I asked. “Prawns, salad cream and tom - ato sauce,” she replied. It seemed innocent enough, but then as her co-worker ladled this gloop on to the steaming potato, she enquired, “Cheese?”

I was flummoxed. Prawn cocktail and cheese? I doubt Ferran Adrià could’ve conceived of such a provocative combination in his wildest times at El Bulli (or “El Bulimia”, as I often think of the legendary Catalan home of molecular cuisine). Then I admonished myself: chances are you’re going to be offered this only once in your life, so seize the day! The Spudulike woman topped the confection off with a slice of lemon; I requested a cup of tea and the bill came to £6.75. Struck by the expense, I did what anyone else would do and asked her – purely rhetorically – what she was earning. You’re on minimum wage, right? To which she assented. Assuming she received tax credits, this meant that she would’ve had to work for an hour in order to afford this most nugatory of repasts. One thing’s for certain, the U in Spud-U-Like doesn’t stand for “unionised”.

Out in the middle of the triangular-shaped food court my teenager was eating his cir - cular meal. It was a scary place, this food court: a postmodern horn concerto of blaring bleached-blond wood-laminate flooring; atop brushed aluminium stanchions were uplights in frosted-blue-glass shades the same shape as General Sir Mike Jackson’s surgically excised eye-bags. In the mid-distance there was a statuette of an etiolated nude girl doing something with a ribbon. Virgin Active, I thought. Still, my food was of a piece with the surroundings, the prawn cocktail and grated cheese just so much bowdlerised detailing absorbed into the vernacular potato.

I tried eating it. It tasted chemical, certainly, with high notes of petrol and Jeyes Fluid, but if it had tasted too good I might’ve begun to worry. As it was, the Spudulike experience had a refreshing honesty about it. I suppose a more combative diner might’ve interrogated these suspicious and soused prawns: whither comest thou? But the prawns would’ve been entirely within their rights to reject me out of hand, purely on the basis that I was sitting in the scary food court. Somewhere on the ocean bed there’s probably a fast-food outlet for crustaceans called Humanuhate, or possibly Human-U-Hate.