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Snack addicts

“I am getting divorced and all I want to eat is peanut butter.”

The Essay
BBC Radio 3

A series of The Essay – Radio 3’s routinely excellent and varied late-night monologues – praised American food (19-23 November, 10.45pm). Joyce Maynard spoke about the Wampanoags offering popcorn at the first Thanksgiving. Her reason for loving the snack so much – “It’s healthy and low in calories and delicious” – sounded as good as any but when she started dissing bags full of sugary matter “popped at some unknown location”, she sounded a little high and mighty. “Movie food”, she called it, thinly, preferring salt on hers when watching a DVD while her daughter sprinkles on brewer’s yeast. Remind me to go watch Paranormal Activity 4 elsewhere.

Popcorn, she pointed out correctly, is best for election nights and break-ups. Times, I took her as meaning, when, like Prospero, “Every third thought shall be my grave.” (But it must always, surely, be sweet and contain, as you get to the bottom of the bag, such an increasing number of those stone-hard kernels that refuse like a bad mussel to put out that you begin to feel short-changed.)

Another episode opened with the line: “I am getting divorced and all I want to eat is peanut butter.” Alice Sebold recalled a 1960s childhood spent eating Skippy from the jar. “Three thousand two hundred calories and 238 grammes of fat,” she sighed. “That’s a lot of cheek and jowl.” Divorce, she explained, now represents to her not just the tragic dissolution of love but the end of her happy relationship with peanut butter: a post-separation diet of nothing but Peter Pan spread on to rice crackers followed by a trickle of heavy cream (“divorce shopping at its best”) completely did her in; the shame got too much.

Which reminded me of a recent trip to the Selfridges food hall with my 12-year-old godson, Max, who usually lives in New Jersey. Fresh out of a screening of Skyfall in which Max was gobsmacked by the dark and savoury simplicity of Daniel Craig’s waxed jacket in the scenes set in Scotland, he was suddenly in no mood to embrace his Garden State heritage and hurried me – red-faced – along the “American aisle” piled high with Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch, Marshmallow Fluff, Aunt Jemima pancake mix and Duncan Hines frosting, in search of something he felt he could feasibly call cool. In front of the Ass Kickin’ Original Hot Sauce, he nodded; “Thank God.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril