Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Top Shelf

As a short-house, I clear out the Top Shelf only once a decade. It pops in to existence when I think about it. Two manners of things roost up there: things which are needed Occasionally and things which will be needed only Once.

Birthday candles are needed on Occasion. There was a time when people were mad for them. They loved them so much that they would make excuses to have candles on anything; cakes, sandwiches, mashed potato. One pack of candles was never enough. Now it still wouldn't be enough, but that's because we'd need a cake the size of a table top and have a fire extinguisher standing ready.

The wick in a birthday candle is not engineered the same way as a table-candle. It is a lightly twisted thread in a column of fuel. If you got enough of them alight at one time you could set fire to the wax. That could ignite the sugar and fat in the frosted topping and the aerated structure of a chocolate sponge would give the fire imps a feast. You'd be lucky not to blow a hole in the cabin roof, all that energy going up at once. That's why people must get on and sing "happy birthday" or else they might as well do a countdown.

Luckily, disaster didn't happen. As the candles were only alight for a brief moment and the audience didn't care so long as it got to blow them out, I took to saving them and recycling them for the next festival of singed fringes. Special guests got new candles, of course, while people who could only be persuaded to eat fish if it first had Happy Tuesday chanted over it to it, as Our Lord Taught Us, made do with the re-treads.

Over the years the number of recycled candles grew, then demand dropped, and they were re-homed to the top shelf and lived in a slot next to the 4-Minute Food.

This food is what I will eat if the 4-minute warning goes off. I've never been clear about how long you've got left to eat it, but that is probably dependent on where you are in relation to the bang. It turns out that if you have delicious food up there, you will eat it in the course of ordinary and then where would you be if the moment came? It follows that 4-minute food is that which isn't tempting enough to eat normally but would keep you going in the event of need. It should take little preparation and be edible cold from the tin if absolutely necessary, or heatable over recycled birthday candles.

In field tests it turned out that there was a good reason the tinned spinach was marked down to fourpence. How Popeye the Sailor Man opens the stinky slithery stuff and chokes it down, I will never know. What I do know is that the remainder of life spent subsisting on something a slug would turn its nose up at, is going to need more than a birthday candle and a song floated on it to make it bearable. That's fourpence I won't see again.

I don't think May 2006 is going to come round again either, so the pease pudding is going to have to go to a historical collection or landfill. There are some purposes to old food; you don't break in to an Egyptian tomb and immediately set about clearing out the dead Pharaoh's food locker, it has historical relevance of itself. Except, what would a tin of pease pudding and jar of pickled walnuts say about me?

Future children would solemnly poke at it supposing that pease pudding was the delicacy of choice, kept in a sacred ark and served on Ritz crackers. As the serving suggestions says:
"Ready Cooked. Vegetable. Traditionally served hot with boiled meat. Try it also. Hot or Cold. With any meat or fish."

I only bought it for the label. I like its firm red recognition of my own wisdom. Foresight in a tin, combining traditional virtues with proven technology. Arguably, I should have made someone else eat the pudding - with a birthday candle on top - and then pasted the label smugly inside the cupboard door. Wait, what's this in the small print?

"Quality Guarantee. We want you to enjoy this product. If you are not entirely satisfied, please return the EMPTY can and coded can-end to our Customer Services Manager, saying where and when purchased. This guarantee does not affect your statutory rights".

They are even unwise enough to say where to send the can and, let's face it, they can't check where I bought it. As we can assume it was well before 2006, I've forgotten and I've probably lost the receipt by now, but it's a reasonable bet that hanging on to a product until it is four years out of date goes beyond the spirit of the guarantee. Anyway, if I don't eat it, how do I know if I've not enjoyed it, except that I haven't - yet.

Perhaps Premier Foods, who acquired the HL brand in the 1990s (probably about the same time as I acquired the tin) would like it back for their Company Museum. Tiptree, the jam makers in Essex, have preserved a preserves museum (free entry, next to the lovely tearoom), or maybe there's a food historian who would like it.

Out, out, brief candles, and take that pease pudding with you.


Electro-Kevin said...

I haven't had pease pudding for decades. If the tin is not deformed then the chances are that the food inside is edible.

If you don't want it send it to me.

Woman on a Raft said...

Good evening, E-K.

Washington State University say that the US Army found caches of canned food were still preserved after 46 years which I suppose means 'safe'. They don't, however, say they tried eating them.

I'm happy to eat dried foods which have been stored air-tight e.g. teabags, sugar, coffee but I'm a cowardy custard about things with water in them, unless highly preserved with other ingredients such as sugar or vinegar (or both).

Whisky preserved in whisky is alright.

Do you want the birthday candles?

Dick Puddlecote said...

You wasted pease pudding? Good grief, woman!

Superb how you got Egyptian paharaohs into a post about your top shelf, though. I came here expecting to read about readers' wives.


Woman on a Raft said...

It's still sitting here, Mr P, daring me to eat it or work out how to get it to E-K.

I am a reader's wife, so you have read about one. Next, I may write a piece about jugs.

TheFatBigot said...

On clearing out a kitchen cupboard at FatBigot Towers after having lived here 14 years I found a packet of soup powder that was 16 years past its sell-by date. It didn't seem wise to risk it.

JuliaM said...

They still sell that pease pudding in ASDA, in much smaller tins. My mother buys it.

Woman on a Raft said...

That's strange, JuliaM - my mother does that too. It must be biological, like cravings in pregnancy, where a switch flicks in a woman's head and she thinks "Quick, a tin of pease pudding, I pray you, bring me one".

That packet of soup is a microcosm, Mr FTB, of what happens in food warehouses all over the world. I was sent to help clear an old shed in Docklands where the site was going to be re-developed.

One of the saddest sights was a pyramid of polythene lined boxes, like giant wine boxes, all out of date and all containing emergency water intended for disaster zones. By then it could only be used for watering gardens and some jobsworths said it wasn't even safe for that and wanted to pour it straight down the drain to avoid liability if it turned out to be contaminated. They had a point, I suppose.

Joe Public said...

Ever wondered why wine & honey have sell-by dates?

Me neither.

RantinRab said...

Some professional wisdom from my good self...

Sell by date - does not exist.
Use by - Used on perishable foods. You must never consume food after the use by date.
Best Before - The taste and quality of the food may not be as good after the date has expired but the food will still be edible.

I bet your Peas Pudding is perfectly fine!

Trivia - the only foodstuffs that are permitted by law not to have a date code are salt, sugar, vinegar and individual ice lollies.

Woman on a Raft said...

That's handy to know, thank you Rab.

I'm not surprised individual lollies don't have a date stamp - their life-span is very limited round here. An article turned up about cleaning products so I decided to give white vinegar a go. I thought "Six percent acidity, I'll go with the big jar of pickling vinegar" and then discovered that they put spices in it (always read the label).

It did a reasonable drain-cleaning job but everything ponged of piccallili. I can't see it catching on as a home fragrance.

Also in store is jar of precious French honey, Mr Public, which is well-past its date but is unopened. That's because I don't want to scoff the last jar without finding a way to secure the supply, but as it was from an individual French apiarist my only option is to go to him and carry it back. The honey is darkening now but I doubt that will affect its properties.