Thursday, January 25, 2007

Modernism: A Potted History

In Memoriam: Momoluku Ando (March 5th 1910 - January 5th 2007)

Momoluku Ando - who died at the beginning of January this year - bequeathed the world one of its most incredible products: the Pot Noodle. Could there be a better icon of mass-produced, instant, transportable, lightweight, efficient, international modernity than the Pot Noodle? Forget the Futurist’s Cook Book, this is food as Modernists dreamt the world could be.

Despite its staggering success the Pot Noodle occupies a problematic place in our food culture. In fact, for most people, it is doubtful whether they would actually class it as a food at all. Pot Noodle is most definitely a PRODUCT and, these days food's cultural value lies in its claims to naturalness. Current attitudes to food mirror our mixed up attitude to modernity in general. Food consumption is currently subject to more sentimentalism, pseudo-regionalism and sheer perversity than even architecture. It is no coincidence that Prince Charles’ twin areas of industry over the last twenty years have been in these two fields. His combination of a misty eyed veneration of olde England, deep political conservatism, sentimental love of the land and anti-scientific belief systems have given us both Poundbury and Duchy Originals: his recently built village and organic food range respectively.

If Duchy Originals hail from the same source as Poundbury then where do Pot Noodles come from? Tokyo? Milton Keynes? Well, Wales actually but like Milton Keynes they are derided and denigrated by all right thinking people, symbolic of a wasteful, over packaged, over sanitised, lazy and nutritionally under-nourished culture, removed from food production, lost to the land, indifferent to the changing seasons. They are the ultimate enemy of the Slow Food movement, the Room 101 of TV chefs. Duchy Originals are self-consciously conservative, evoking images of localised cottage farming industry. Organic, authentic and original. The associations with monarchy may rankle but the Duchy bacon and biscuits on our supermarket shelves are a favourite of urban foodies. And this is another paradox of our complex culture. Recently, our retail landscape has inverted itself. Gentrified parts of East London are now full of specialist cheese emporiums, retro sweet shops and down to earth farmers markets. Urbanites, decked in Japanese denim and plugged into Californian software, amble about picking the greenfly off Bramlies and the mud off Maris Pipers. Farmer’s stalls fill up vacant plots of inner London like a cross between Archigram’s Instant City and the Archers. It’s like….well, actually it’s so complicated, so perversely tortuous in its lack of logic that it’s hard to say what it's like. Who would have thought the city would end up looking like this? Certainly not the Futurists and, probably, not the inventor of Pot Noodles either. Meanwhile, out in the sticks, everyone is off to Tesco.

In a land of Nigel and Nigella, modern convenience food appears doomed. Except it isn’t. Pot Noodle's manufacturer's Unilever sell 4 Pot Noodles every second. Their slick and funny marketing campaign plays relentlessly on the negative connotations of Pot Noodles, constantly referring to its unnaturalness and slobby lack of sophistication. They recently brought out a super hot curry version called Bombay Bad Boy and a more upmarket one called Posh Noodle. And just look at that Bombay Bad Boy packing. It’s black with flames on it. When did anyone try and sell food in packaging that looked like a hot rod? No tasteful use of tartan, no retro packaging, no “I’m home made, I must be good for you” schtick. Pot Noodle flaunts its in-authenticity, it's status as a product, something made in a factory and boxed in its millions. It's latest advertising campaign pokes yet more fun at our longing for natural products by suggesting that the noodles are mined in Wales.

A vegetarian friend of mine at University existed for some time solely on Chicken Pot Noodles. He did this because Chicken Pot Noodles were: A, amazingly cheap and; B, contained absolutely no chicken. Momoluku Ando’s product got my friend through some difficult times. Now, he probably has nothing to with it and gets his vegetables delivered by Able & Cole. This, though, is our contemporary version of modernity. This is where we went in the century of Modernism that Ando lived through. A society complex enough to embrace the giddying effects of digital technology and to also want its vegetables seasonal and with the mud still on. And, to eat 175 million Pot Noodles a year on the sly.

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