The news on that seemingly normal morning in June 2009 was met initially with nervous disbelief. Most people put it to the back of their minds and just got on with making a start on their working day. But by lunchtime the topic had saturated Dublin’s social media networks and by nightfall a mild hysteria had taken hold. Distraught citizens telephoned their loved ones abroad; neighbours gathered on corners to comfort each other; in the pubs, revellers sat in stunned silence. The evening bulletins confirmed the terrible truth: Walsh Family Foods, the company that made Spice Burgers, was closing down. No more Spice Burgers.
Cooked up by enterprising local butcher Maurice Walsh in the early 1950s, the burger – a mixture of rusk, onion, minced beef and breadcrumbs with a dose of peppery ‘secret spices’ and a crispy crumb coating – held a special place in the hearts (and arteries) of Dubliners, whether as a late-night street-treat with chips or as the star of a weekend fry-up. Its imminent demise triggered an instant outpouring of anguish and nostalgia, and within days campaigns to ‘Save the Spice Burger’ had been launched in the press and on Facebook. Even people who hadn’t eaten one in decades rushed to Internet forums to lament its passing. All agreed that something had to be done. But what?
Then, just as chippers across the capital reached the end of their stocks, something extraordinary happened. Two weeks after the bombshell had been dropped, Walsh’s – battered byeuro-sterling weakness and competition from UK rivals – announced that thanks to the demand for burgers generated by the public outcry, it was back in business. Three years later, stacks of Spice Burgers sit in the chilled section of every Dublin supermarket and sizzle nightly in the golden depths of deep fat fryers throughout the country.
For an often apathetic species it is surprising how fired up humans can become when their favourite foodstuffs are under threat. Think for example of the unholy row that ensued in the early nineties after EU bureaucrats tried to dictate the contents of the sacred British sausage. ‘Hands off our bangers!’ went the headlines as covert platoons of Dad’s Army-style volunteers prepared to march on Brussels. Johnny Pen-pusher soon got the message, oh yes. No one messes with the English pork cylinder- that wholesome combination of cereal, salt, er… fat, preservatives, and, um, minced-up bits of … well, no one messes with it.
Then there was the great ‘Save Our Salad Cream’ commotion of 1999 when Heinz announced it was discontinuing the gloopy yellow condiment that Britons had been dolloping on lettuce and rubbing on rashes since World War One. Supermarket chains and celebrity chefs led the charge, with Marco Pierre White hailing the sauce as ‘one of the great culinary creations of the 20th century’ and declaring, bizarrely, that he had been thinking of putting it on his next menu, ‘with plums’. Sure enough, as shoppers rushed to clear the shelves of a childhood icon, Heinz graciously conceded that it would maintain production and shortly afterwards launched an ad-campaign ruthlessly targeting a nation still blinded by tears of sentimentality.
In France, a country permanently cocked for civil disobedience, the closure of the Marks and Spencer food hall in Paris in 2001 sparked a brouhaha on a scale not seen since the ‘Red Wine With Fish’ protest of 1972. The company’s withdrawal, amid a collapse in profits, was a devastating blow to Parisians who had developed a taste for the food of les rosbifs, particularly their shortbread, marmalade, Earl Grey tea, muffins and, ahem, sausages. Politicians, trades unions and celebrities all howled in unison and hordes of placard-waving crumpet addicts took to the streets. A book of condolence was opened at the store’s Boulevard Haussmann site in which were scrawled harrowing messages of despair. In this case, though, protest was ineffective and it would be a decade before M&S returned.
Thinking about the Great Spice Burger Hullabaloo and other instances of food-related people-power started me wondering which household favourite would have me silhouetted against flames on top of a barricade. While there are certainly products I’d miss terribly – Colman’s English Mustard, for example, and Flahavans Organic Porridge Oats – there’s only one whose prospective termination would have me rummaging for my pitchfork: Tabasco sauce. That Louisiana pepper juice, in its distinctive little bottle, has been a constant companion most of my adult life, from making many an experimental undergraduate stew edible to taking the edge off some of the stiffer culinary challenges of travels in post-Communist Eastern Europe (pig’s brains in sour cream sauce anyone?). It’s a rare day still that I don’t reach for it. Yep, if they want my Tabasco, they’ll have to prise it from my cold, dead fingers.
A quick straw poll of the other members of my household revealed that my teenage son would get out of bed and start moving quickly (and believe me, that’s saying something) to defend the Yorkie bar, while my eleven-year-old daughter would mobilise with extreme prejudice against any threat to the Northern Irish crisp brand, Tayto. As for my wife … a message to the makers of Mella’s Handmade West Cork Fudge: Don’t Even Think About It.
Kevin Smith’s first novel, “Jammy Dodger” will be published in September 2012 by Sandstone Press.