Thursday, January 28, 2010

Greengages, red soap and breadsticks

It came to me quite suddenly,
As I lay in my bed –
That wholesome taste that one-time graced
Our slices of white bread.
Several years ago, I wrote a poem lamenting the disappearance of greengage jam, a confiture that had figured largely in my youth but had disappeared from supermarket shelves one day when nobody was looking. It was only many years later when somebody suddenly had a flashback that we realised it was no longer with us.
Where did it go? Was there a failure of the greengage crop, akin to the potato famine of the 1840s? Did the bottom fall out of the greengage market? Did unscrupulous co-ops make the production of greengages untenable to local farmers? What in God’s name is a greengage anyway? Is it on a list of the world’s most endangered species like the white rhino and the blue whale?
Despite being read on the John Creedon show and, I think, on Playback the following Saturday, the poem failed to break into the poetry charts, sinking without trace, much like its subject matter.
This wondrous fruit of great repute
Just vanished when we blinked.
One day, ‘twas here. The next, I fear,
It must have gone extinct.
I was reminded of this situation when I was sent out the day before Christmas Eve to buy breadsticks. We like to have breadsticks and dips for lunch on Stephens Day and subsequent days, sitting in front of the telly watching Elf or Mary Poppins or some other drug-induced nightmare. It is so easily prepared even I can do it.
Last year we got them in Dunnes in Blanchardstown without any difficulty but this year they were nowhere to be seen. Of course, we had no idea which section they should be in. With the bread? With the crackers? With the biscuits? With the crisps?
When we got home, I was sent out on a mission to get the breadsticks, probably to get me out of the house from under her feet. I tried Lidl in Clonee, the garage, the Post Office, the Soul Bakery in Ongar (it had shut months ago, apparently), Hickeys and Dunnes in Ongar. All to no avail.
In the end, we had to make do with Pringles. Quite tasty but they kept on snapping when you dug them into the sour cream and onion.
When did they stop this luscious crop?
Quite sudden, or in stages?
Did harvests fail through snow and hail?
What happened to greengages?
The summer before last, my daughter spent three months in Hawaii on something called a J1 visa. As you can imagine, it was a terrible wrench to be apart from her for such a long period of time, though it was not quite long enough to sell all her clothes and move house.
Anyway, on her return – oh sad, woebegotten day! – we were naturally excited by the thoughts of the wonderful surprise present she would doubtless have brought back. Some Waikiki crystal, perhaps? A hideously loud shirt? A fragment of Japanese bomber fished out of Pearl Harbour?
I think I would be safe in assuming that neither of us had anticipated the box of Lucky Charms that she produced from among her three months worth of washing.
For those above, or indeed below, a certain age, Lucky Charms was a breakfast cereal that was popular in our house in the late eighties and early nineties. They were like a multi-coloured Cheerios and we even saved up the tokens to buy a mug that changed colour depending on the temperature of the liquid inside, which kept us enthralled for days on end.
We actually still have the mug somewhere at the back of the press, though I’m afraid its chameleon–like qualities have not lasted. But Lucky Charms have long since gone, withdrawing unannounced to the shores of America and doubtless inspiring the Morrissey hit single This Charmless Man.
Look on the shelf in shops yourself,
There’s jams of every flavour.
Kiwi, plum, chrysanthemum,
To sample and to savour.
A few months ago, my wife’s mother, who resides down in Stoneybatter, discovered that Tesco’s in Prussia Street had stopped selling bars of red soap. You know the ones – they used to live by the sink and came in a colourful wrapper with a cartoon picture of a smiling housewife on the front. Not exactly sure what it was for but every household had one. I think it might have been for getting spaghetti hoop stains off your trousers in a hurry.
Anyway, she said, could we have a look in Dunnes and get her a bar? No problem, we said. The difference is, Dunnes are Irish. (Isn’t it ridiculous how you have loyalty to one brand of supermarket?) However, Margaret Heffernan may be a true daughter of Erin but she obviously doesn’t see the need for red soap anymore. In fact, bars of ordinary soap only occupied about an eighth of a shelf, being surrounded and intimidated by the liquid soap, whose plastic packaging is doubtless a step in the wrong direction environmentally.
“They’ll probably have it in some hardware shop in Newcastlewest,” opined my wife, “next to the watering cans and the sleeveless anoraks,” and I dare say she is right but thankfully her sister, on her Christmas visit from England, was able to bring a year’s supply of red soap (one bar) with her. In return, we loaded her down with black pudding, Walsh’s spice burgers (are they the next on the list?)and YR sauce.

Whate’er the cause, it’s time to pause,
And doff our caps with piety,
And bow the head to mourn the spread
That’s lost unto society.

The point I am making, somewhat longwindedly, is that supermarkets should warn you that they no longer intend to stock a certain product. Had we known that household soap was going to be withdrawn, we could have bought twenty bars and kept them with the Christmas decorations in the attic, bringing one down every year as needed.
Who decides that the Irish public no longer requires greengage jam? Is our family particularly odd in opting for products that are doomed to disappear as soon as we get a taste for them, or are we at the mercy of supermarket buyers who count the units sold and the shelf-space taken up?
I think there should be some one centralised store, preferably in the Dublin 15 area, where people can go and buy breadsticks or Butterscotch flavour Angel Delight or dandelion and burdock or pork pies or Birds Eye Cod in Butter Sauce or any of the thousands of products that supermarkets no longer stock.
Any budding entrepreneurs out there looking for an idea, it’s all yours.
Rich and sweet, ‘twas quite a treat
But, like the Dublin tram,
It’s had its day, gone on its way –
The pot of greengage jam.