Sea, salt and cracked pepper

The other day, my brother-in-law wondered on Facebook why the expiry dates on British packets of crisps (translation: potato chips) always occur on Saturdays. This gave rise to a conversation which I joined, to find myself inadvertently giving my explanation of the phenomenon at some length. I was then encouraged to pop my reply somewhere other than a family FB page, so here it is.

Crisp dating originated as far back as the third century: to be precise, the first ever Vatican Congress, consisting of Pope Earnest Borgia and her eleven illegitimate children, held at the Pope’s favourite Vatican hostelry, the Cardinals Inn. The Congress was established to draft the first full Christian calendar and set out its feast day traditions: fish fingers on Fridays, Sunday Mass on Saturdays, chocolate on Easter Sunday, confession when the moon turns blue and so on.

The Congress was bemoaning the secularisation of Sundays and the demise of the religious traditions it was commissioned to preserve; in particular, the Sunday roast: overdone slices of beef, chicken, pork or Linda McCartney, with Yorkshires, roast potatoes, a kilo of Brussel sprouts and a spoonful of real veg, washed down with Ah Bisto. The loss of this repast, the Congress said, was due to the mediaeval serf fondness for snacking between meals to the extent that the meals vanished and only the snacking remained. And the most offending snack, it decided, was the potato crisp. The solution? Ban crisps on Sundays.

But the law wasn’t popular and was almost impossible to police in a feudal society. Children burrowed holes in their wattle-and-daub Wiis, where they hid secret stashes of crisps for Sunday morning food fests while, at Saturday evening soirées, adults deliberately over-catered the finger-bowls of Kettle crisps and Twiglets, knowing the Twiglets would go first so that there would always be half-bowls of sweet chilli or sour cream and chive delights left on Sunday mornings to soak up the hangovers.

The Congress ordered the Vatican Guard to come down hard on the illicit Sunday snacking but the people objected and took to the streets. The next thing the Vatican knew, St Peter’s Square was filled with demonstrators demanding regime change and inventing Twitter so that they could spread the word by posting fine-brushed triptychs to twitpic. But at the order “Fire, Guard”, the Vatican’s elite troops refused, being creative commoners who found the order incompatible with the ethos of the open fire movement.

It was Prince Mickey Mouse – a former sovereign of the Italian city state, Velli, who’d been reduced to the status of pauper in an unfortunate switch scam – who came up with the answer. Prince Mickey was anxious to make a new name for himself so that he could challenge his usurper, pauper Mickey Mouse who – fired from his career as apprentice to a sorcerer and sugar lord following an incident with a shadowy army of mops and an uncomfortable board meeting – had run the scam to steal Prince Mickey’s throne and had then consolidated his win by commissioning a biopic from Walt Disney that would forever paint him in a positive cinematic light. Borrowing an idea from early Genesis, pre-Phil Collins of course, Prince Mickey had a brainwave. He grew a precision-cut goatee, changed his name to Emma Freud, swore to pauper Mickey in a theatrical Austrian accent that he’d be back and then approached Pope Earnest Borgia claiming that he could solve the global crisp crisis by interpreting the Pope’s dreams.

The Pope, it transpired, was indeed having repeated B-movie horror nightmares about plagues of ‘Eat Me’ dates overwhelming the popular North Yorkshire spa town of Selby. Emma Freud thought this a load of papal bull but saw his chance and called in his trusted advisers, Andrew Lloyd Lloyd Webber and plain Tim Rice, to compose his interpretative statement in the form of a two hour spectacular song and dance show with Philip Schofield in the title role. However, at the last minute, and in a shock to the nation, Schofield’s hair turned grey overnight and he instantly became no longer popular among young people, so Emma had Schofield exiled to morning television and took the role himself.

Sunday came and it was time for Emma to present his ideas in public, earn his fame and fortune and thereby oust the failed pauper, Mickey Mouse. Dressed in Schofield’s show costume, a voluminous coat of many greys, he took to the stage before a papal sea of cardinals, commoners and Borgias.

But pauper Mickey hadn’t been idle. Disney had not only finished the biopic but had digitally remastered it, created three different directors’ cuts and a 3D re-release, sold 20,000 pirate copies on the beaches of Benidorm and shared the files illegally in 156 countries before it had even been theatrically released. And not one recipient had yet watched it, for pauper Mickey was planning to stage the biggest simultaneous movie premiere-and-comeback of all time. So now, armed with a virgin cinema 70mm print, a pair of nitrogen-cooled projectors, a 24-storey Imax screen and 800 pairs of 3D glasses, pauper Mickey stole silently into the back row of the stalls to overshadow his princely namesake, Emma.

As Emma’s curtain rose, the auditorium was filled with sound and light. But it was was not the opening bars of Emma’s musical nor the dulcet tones of children from 38 West Midlands primary schools selected in an X-factor-style BBC1 knockout contest in which former standup, Graham Norton, fawned embarrassingly before Emma’s godlike composer and impresario, Lloyd Lloyd Webber: it was instead the start of Disney’s blockbuster film. All eyes turned to the screen, not only here but to every screen in the world. Emma stared at the title: “The Prince, by Mickey a Velli”, and so taken aback was he by the affront that he could only stand in the middle, spell-bound.

But pauper Mickey’s plan backfired spectacularly. For what nobody had told him was that in the process of making the film, Walter Kronkite Disney had invented colour. And as that opening title frame hit the screen, the whole world burst into bloom and there, right in the middle of the stage, Emma Freud’s coat exploded in a fantasia of rich hues. The audience turned back from the screen to his technicolor coat, his orchestra recovered its composer and Pope Earnest Borgia expostulated, “Sweet Joseph, is it really you?”

Things now stood in Emma’s favour. The theatre usherettes surrounded pauper Mickey and plied him with nuts and ice cream. Such was the temptation that pauper Mickey surrendered, switched off the projectors and tucked into a raspberry ripple. As soon as the first mouthful left the wooden spatula in a teasing, tongue-tingling sensation, the Vatican Guard arrested pauper Mickey – Sunday snacking still being illegal – and dragged him off to the fate worse than death of having to entertain Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, in a series of schmaltzy Christmas specials, which also happened to complete the Vatican Congress’ calendar of new ancient Christmas traditions.

With the world watching, Emma Freud began. And 21 hit songs, a platinum album, an unfortunate flop directed by Kenneth Brannagh and a run of 72 years on the West End and Broadway stages later, the Vatican congress had its answer. The solution to the Sunday snacking crisis was to replace the oh-so popular crisps with a new snack that everybody would own but nobody could ever actually bring themselves to eat: dates. To be specific, dates from the North Yorkshire groves of Selby. And with the introduction of the Selby date, Sunday snacking would die out and the Sunday roast would be fully restored.

The Borgias, notorious for their generosity and sweet natures, agreed. Jubilant, Emma Freud changed his name back to Mickey Mouse, terminated his Austrian accent and travelled back in time to marry his mother as he’d always wanted to do, and the Pope re-anointed him Prince. She then ordered Walt Disney to remake his film as the balanced, factual and authoritative documentary that we know today and which is an inspiration to princes and paupers the world over. All earlier versions were burned, though somehow the novelisation survived to became compulsory reading in first year Oxbridge PPE degrees for aspirant prime ministers and Middle East dictators. Then the Pope toured the world’s revolutionary squares – St Peter’s, Tahrir, Independence, Tienanmen, but not, of course, Parliament Square, London, where demonstrations are outlawed – and, in each, the papal annuncio announced that henceforth all crisp manufacturers should use the Selby dates scheme.

In the third century, the major crisp friars – Mr Kettle, Dr McCoy, Mr Ownbrand and Mr Linekar – were not the brightest of people, having been born merely as footballers and starship doctors. They were illiterates of pheasant stock, knowing little of the ways of the world, so not one of them had heard of Selby, despite its many visitor attractions and handy downloadable guidebook in PDF format, nor of any Middle Eastern sun-ripened fruits, for which they all agreed they could not give a fig anyway. So they interpreted the papal decree the best way they knew how: labelling. They were told to use Selby dates to ensure that the latest day on which crisps could be eaten was Saturday, and that’s what they did.

Which is why, now, in supermarkets and other fine convenience stores near you, the Selby date for crisps is always on Saturdays.

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