Will Self: The humble crumb gets us thinking how one day we’ll all be brown bread

The more you consider the crumb, the more you sense the world about you crumbling – while we ourselves are but crumbs scattered on the face of the earth.

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I was sitting chatting and snacking with some rather fresh-faced, clean-living-looking academic types in a room at the Royal Society of Arts . . . Why? Because that’s the sort of thing we London media bunnies do when we’re not dreaming up new recipes for tiramisu. Anyway, one of these academics said he enjoyed the Real Meals column, especially the one a few issues ago on crisps, and did I know that there was a theory doing the rounds among evolutionary psychologists that the reason we’re so hopelessly addicted to crisps is that their plangent crepitation as we bite into them reminds us of the primordial state in which we dined happily on insects. I thanked this odd fellow for his input and continued methodically working my way through the bowl of invertebrate potato shavings sitting between us on a glass-topped table.

But that wasn’t the end of it – another of the academics chimed up.

“Crisps!” she exclaimed, “You wrote an entire magazine column on crisps!”

I averred that I had – and moreover that I didn’t regard this as a particularly intense immersion in the quotidian: why, if I were the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard I’d probably manage a 600-page volume on a single crisp I ate while holidaying with my fractious parents in Lillehammer in 1977.

Anyway, the episode got me thinking about what would be the most insignificant – but, for all that, profoundly real – foodstuff, about which I could write a magazine column. I pondered the matter long and hard as I chomped my way through the crisps, only to find that the answer had fallen into my lap in the shape of . . .

. . . crumbs.

We all eat crumbs, although we don’t tend to make a big deal out of it – there is, for instance, no restaurant chain I’m aware of called Just Crumbs, nor has Jamie Oliver opened an eatery called Jamie’s Crumbs. Nevertheless crumbs are all about us, frequently on us, and who among us cannot admit to coating the tips of our fingers lightly with spittle and then dabbing up the occasional mini-feast? The most interesting thing about crumbs is that unlike other foods – which usually, if they’re worthy of note at all, direct us to a consideration of our own physiological processes, whether gustatory or digestive – the crumb calls our attention to profound metaphysical questions: why are we here? What is the nature of reality? Is there a God or gods? Is this how it will all end, in a drift of sweetly floury particles? These are some of the issues the crumb’s own existence raises.

The pre-Socratic philosophers were fond of theorising about the ultimate constituents of the physical world – Thales thought everything was water, Democritus that the universe was made of tiny particles; Heraclitus believed it was in a permanent state of flux. They were thus close to the realisation that grips all of us after a sofa-bound Digestive biscuit blowout, which is that the fundamental building blocks of matter are crumbs.

And if not crumbs, then smears, dribbles, globs, dregs and lees – the organic nature of food makes it particularly susceptible to these forms of decay, and thus we see foreshadowed on our cleared plates the remains of all days for all eternity. The more you consider the crumb, the more you sense the world about you crumbling – mighty mountain ranges will eventually crack and spall; the works of humankind are no less friable, while we ourselves are but crumbs scattered on the face of the earth.

Yes, the crumb alerts us to the impermanence of things as we place it judiciously on the end of our tongue – their impermanence, and their evanescence, too, for is it even possible to establish that the crumb is there at all? It’s so very small that when we try to eat it, we discover it’s gone. Moreover, is not the crumb the fundamental constituent of our daily bread? And does this status not lead us to a further, harsher realisation: given that the cultivation of farinaceous food staples capable of storage was integral to the origins of ancient Sumer and Egypt can we deny that our whole civilisation rests on a pile of crumbs? I think not. Personally I embrace the crumb – I even buy certain foods specifically because they’re crumbly. There’s nothing I enjoy more than eating a disintegrating slice of slightly dry cake and watching as the crumbs plume to the floor. (Side plates are, of course, the enemies of the particulate philosopher.)

It’s said that the best way to distinguish between biscuits and cakes is that the former go soft and the latter go hard, but this becomes a specious opposition when you consider that no matter how soft a biscuit, or how hard a cake, both can be crumbled. Crumby I may be, but I’m not crazy, and I don’t actually consume entire meals of pre-crumbled food. I don’t need to: crumbliness is a by-product of eating, so that wherever there’s mastication it will inevitably appear. In this way, crumbs are akin to happiness itself, which can never be obtained by a direct method, but must be experienced as a result of other activities only.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this: a whole magazine column about crumbs – albeit with an opening passage that was a sort of crisps redux. Next time I’ll be considering hundreds and thousands (the Inuit call these “some and many”).

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 appears in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?