Locating our bullshit detector

Posted by in July's Magazine

I’m writing this in the aftermath of the General Election, as Theresa May scrambles to form an arse-saving coalition with Dastardly and Muttley while the rest of us struggle to work out what in the name of sweet hell is going to happen next. One of the few conclusions we can confidently draw from the results is that the written media, for so long the self-appointed arbiters of public opinion, are fast losing their mojo. Their tactics have barely changed in living memory – for Kinnock as a light bulb in ‘92, see Corbyn in a dustbin twenty five years later – but this time, instead of being The Sun wot won it, it’s the young wot ignored it. The organic sharing of information and opinion through social media has overtaken the self-serving belchings of billionaire moguls; and tomorrow’s fish and chip paper is fast becoming today’s.

If we really are becoming less inclined to believe everything we read, this isa welcome and overdue development. In the information age, when potential propaganda can be fact-checked in milliseconds with any search engine, there’s no good reason to depend unquestioningly on a single source. Be that the Mail, BBC, Guardian or Leither. And if we’ve belatedly located our collective bullshit detector, surely it would make sense to use it more widely – perhaps even in those increasingly rare times when there isn’t an election campaign going on?



Let’s start at the supermarket. Older readers may hazily recall a time when the majority of our food arrived loose and unlabelled, weighed out by human beings in units known as pounds and ounces. Nowadays, the equivalent food comes lovingly shrink-wrapped in predetermined quantities, adorned with all manner of information. Amongst this, you’ll find the genuinely useful (ingredients, allergens, nutritional data), the useless but mostly harmless (‘for best results, consume through a mouth’) and the actively misleading. And this third category can be neatly sub-divided, like many an election manifesto, into two distinct strands: empty words and made up numbers.

Empty words
The contents of this section rarely vary; they’re the ‘strong and stable’ part of the food label, and just as meaningful. ‘Wash before use is a long-standing favourite of questionable relevance, depending on what you propose to do with the food. If you intend to boil or deep-fry it into oblivion – effectively sterilising it many times over – then it really isn’t going to matter whether you wash it or not; whereas if it’s caked in shite and you plan to serve it raw and unpeeled, you might do well to give it a decent rinse.

Equally familiar, but more problematic, is the instruction to ‘ensure food is piping hot before serving’. For a start, you might notice that the phrase doesn’t actually mean anything. If boiling point is 100°C and freezing point is 0°C, what exactly is piping point? We tend to assume it means ‘very hot indeed’, which from the manufacturer’s perspective is ideal, as the sole purpose of this mantra is to guard against speculative legal action from people who eat raw out-of-date pork and are then astonished when they shit themselves inside out. But if you spend a small fortune on a fillet steak then cook it until ‘piping hot throughout’, you probably shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Made up numbers
I’m fairly certain that Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister when I first ranted about this; so how reassuring it is, in a world of otherwise constant flux, that Waitrose minced beef still comes with the helpful instruction: ‘Simply pan-fry for 24-26 minutes’. First, they plucked a cooking time from thin air – in this case, 25 minutes – for a delicious evening meal of mince à la nothing. Then, reflecting that this might appear overly prescriptive, they decided to introduce a bit of wriggle room, to the somewhat limited extent of 60 seconds either way. It’s a wonder that my Thai-style chilli beef, flash fried for five minutes, or Bolognese sauce, slowly simmered for four hours, ever turn out to be even vaguely palatable.

Well, I hate to break it to you, Waitrose, but I’ve discovered a pretender to your bullshit throne. Shopping for random offal in Morrison’s, as I’m wont to do, I found a pack of diced pig’s heart, which I was invited to ‘simmer for 40 minutes per 500g plus 40 minutes’. This might be reasonable guidance if I were cooking, say, a whole pig’s heart, or some other large lump of meat. But when the meat comes pre-diced, it won’t matter whether I’m cooking half a kilo or half a tonne; it’ll take roughly the same amount of time. So with this advice, we move from the merely meaningless into the realm of the truly unhelpful.

We might have laughed at our Theresa’s manifesto claim that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ on Brexit but when it comes to food labels no information really is better than bad information. And when we allow the words shoved in front of us to override our instincts and judgement we get both the dinner and the Government we deserve.

Twitter: @norecipeman

One response to “Locating our bullshit detector”

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