Can it really be true? Surely it must be an alternative fact? Can people really have been panic-buying iceberg lettuces? Can you imagine being in a panic about buying an iceberg lettuce? (Well, three iceberg lettuces, which I think was the limit. Shades of post-war rationing.) I must say, I wasn’t. I’ve never seen the point of iceberg lettuces. I acknowledge that they’re crisp, and pert, but I’m not sure that I want my lettuces to be crisp and pert. And they taste of absolutely nothing at all. Perhaps that’s the point? They’re pure nothingness, like a Malevich white painting, or La-La-Land. You can project your desires and your dreams onto them. Ok – your croutons and your anchovy dressing.
Various theories have been advanced for the shortage of iceberg lettuces, courgettes, spinach etc. The most convincing theory, in fact the only convincing theory: freak bad weather in Spain and Italy. And of course, you can’t help thinking, maybe not so freakish, these days; so there are probably plenty more shortages of this kind on the way. The other theories were frisky but daft. The revenge of the EU for Brexit (well, it’s very possibly coming some time soon, but surely this wasn’t it) - reports from European supermarkets of shelves groaning with iceberg lettuces. And, even more far-fetched, a clever marketing ploy by British supermarkets to promote interest in unpopular vegetables.
Call me a grumpy old man (or a grumpy man, depending on how old you think I am), but even if iceberg lettuces were the most extraordinarily delicious thing on the planet, the fact that there’s a fuss about a shortage of them in mid-winter is surely an indication that we’ve descended into an extreme state of decadence. The world’s weather may be capricious and the seasons out of kilter, but in the supermarkets it’s perpetual summer (as distinct from Perpetual Summer, a compilation album of Donna Summer’s greatest hits that doesn’t exist, yet). In winter iceberg lettuces have to be flown hundreds of miles to get to us - until there’s a shortage, and then they have to be flown thousands of miles. And they still don’t taste of anything.
The playwright Christopher Marlowe was on to this. In his brilliant, flawed play Dr. Faustus (some clever person described it as having ‘a beginning, a muddle and an end’), Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer (you knew this?) in return for twenty-five years of unlimited knowledge and magical powers, and the support of Mephistopheles, Lucifer’s servant. The knowledge disappoints him, and he misuses the magical powers in pranks and petty squabbles. By the time the terrifying deadline approaches, he has descended into depravity and disillusionment.
At this low moment he is summoned to strut his stuff for the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt, feckless, decadent aristos. It’s midwinter. Turns out all they want is some grapes. With the assistance of Mephistopheles, he produces the grapes. The Duke and Duchess are ecstatic. These are the best grapes I have ever tasted, says the Duchess. How did you do it? says the Duke. And Faustus explains (partially undermining the magic of his trick, very un-Magic Circle):
‘Please it your grace, the year is divided into two circles over the whole world; so that, when it is winter with us, in the contrary circle it is likewise summer with them, as in India, Saba, and such countries that lie far east, where they have fruit twice a-year; from whence, by means of a swift spirit that I have, I had these grapes brought, as you see.’
This is Faustus’ last trick. It’s an utterly empty gesture. Soon after, he is engulfed in depravity. Soon after that, his time is up.
The gesture of bringing iceberg lettuces and all the other out-of-season stuff from the contrary circle seems equally empty. It flatters us. We enjoy the magic of those swift spirits the global logistics companies. We feel complacent; we have conquered nature. But at what cost?
Meanwhile, the turnip.
PS I have been reading We Have Always Lived In The Castle, the gorgeously creepy gothic novel by Shirley Jackson. Two sisters Constance and Merricat live with their Uncle Julian, in fierce isolation from society. One of them, we’re not entirely sure which, has poisoned all the other members of their family. The younger, Merricat is a strange person, obsessed with, amongst other things, the moon. The older Constance is protective of her.
'One summer day', Constance says, ‘I think that soon we will be picking lettuce.’
‘On the moon’, says Merricat.
‘On the moon’, says Constance, ‘you have lettuce all year round, perhaps?’
‘On the moon’, says Merricat, ‘we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings.’
Watch out this winter for horses dancing with their wings, in a supermarket near you.
PPS Lettuces that can be grown in Britain in winter: Lamb’s Lettuce, Vailan (Winter Gem), Jack Ice, Butterhead (Meraviglia d’Inverno San Martino), Winter Purslane, Arctic King etc.
Words by Orlando Gough