Ever since living in Nebraska I wait breathlessly each year for the arrival of spring. One of the earliest signs of winter’s end is the appearance of asparagus. Recently I went to Wenninghoff ‘s to buy some crisp young spring asparagus. Omaha’s farm in the city had no asparagus; the hail from a not so long ago thunderstorm had destroyed the crop. I went in search of asparagus at a grocery store known for it’s variety of signature items and produce. And it seemed that every vegetable and fruit was encased in plastic.
And so I thought about the legacy and genius of Harold Warp. Some say that I-80 through Nebraska is the most boring stretch of interstate in the country. Maybe the ordinariness of I-80 is because the cheapest way to build it was to put it in a wide, level, smooth place; a totally flat location with no heavy duty obstacles. And today I-80 follows the Platte Valley, the time worn floodplain of the Platte River. These days I-80 is home to an endless convoy of semi-trailer trucks shuttling between Bosselman’s and Flying J Travel Plaza’s. And everybody zooms along guided by their GPS and with a Spotify play list blue tooth streaming to their car sub woofers. All of Nebraska’s tourist attractions are just an exit away from the big four lane road.Traveling west the signs first started to appear just past the Grand Island exit; the signs decorated every corn field until the Minden exit. It was a fifty five mile landscape of Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village billboards. Twenty plus years ago I took the 279 exit and spent an afternoon aimlessly wandering the twenty eight buildings of the Village.
It was all about stuff. Harold was his own curator and he introduced a cutting edge approach to cataloging, acquisition and the display of artifacts. That afternoon I walked away from the Village with slumped and weighty shoulders and a bowed head. Harold Warp was no avant-garde pioneer. I didn’t see the signs anymore; they were still standing tall in the corn fields but my rejection of Harold and his Village made them unwanted. One day it just appeared in smaller lettering on one of the signs: inventor Harold Warp, developer of plastic food wrap and the plastic food baggie. Harold was a deliverer, a rescuer, a benefactor to human kind. It wasn’t about the museum it was all about Jiffy Wrap and Jiffy Bags. Harold Warp carked it on April 9th, 1994.
I could recite it by heart; sixpence worth of chips, a piece of flake, and three potato cakes. You stood at the counter and watched as the flake and potato cakes were dipped in batter, placed in a wire basket and plunged into hot bubbling frying oil. And a few minutes later the chips were added to the basket. Fish and chips shops were always family owned and staffed. Mum and dad were behind the counter and the kids helped out on the always busy Friday and Saturday nights. They knew just when to raise the basket of golden goodness from the oil and bump it a couple of times on the edge of the fryer to drain some of the hot oil.
The fish, piles of chunky chips, and crisp potato caked, all deep fried were emptied onto a small piece of grease proof paper resting on sheets of yesterdays newspaper; this pile of perfection was sprinkled with salt, and sometimes vinegar, and then three or four pages of the old newspaper were used to make a steaming hot wrapped package. You would tear the top off of the newspaper package as soon as you left the fish and chip shop to create an opening so your fingers could grasp the golden contents. Sometimes the goodness would stick to the grease proof paper and newspaper; you would peel them from the batter and then scrape the batter from the paper. And the oil would soak into and through the newspaper. Over time there were concerns about the possibility of ink chemical contamination from the newsprint and it was ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink. And so fish and chips were wrapped in white butcher’s paper and then fancy boxes. But I never knew fish and chips to be wrapped in plastic food wrap.
It had wooden floors and a counter that ran the length of the shop. Square shelves of different sizes formed the wall behind the counter and they strained under the weight of the Arnott’s, Brockhoff, and Swallow’s biscuit tins. Rodgers Grocers was on Douglas Parade and close to the corner of Johns Street. Mum and nanna shopped occasionally at Rodgers when nanna bought a pound of biscuits for granddad to dip into his cup of tea. And they passed it every Friday on their way to the shops on Douglas Parade and Ferguson Streets. I would sometimes walk to Williamstown with mum and nanna and they would stop at Rodgers to treat me to broken biscuits; when customers ordered biscuits the broken bits were separated from the whole biscuits and kept aside in a broken biscuit tin.
Biscuits were ordered by weight and a balance weight scale on the counter was used to meet each customers order. I think mum would buy us half a pound of mixed broken. The eight ounce weight was put on one pan of the scales and a few biscuits from the broken biscuit tins were put into a paper bag and put on the other balance pan; biscuits were then added one at a time until the scale balanced. We left J A Rodgers and Co clutching a small paper bag anxious to get home to savor our Arnotts. It’s bizarre how you take the outstanding to be the ordinary and the ordinary to be the exceptional; the broken biscuits were thought of as a delicious treat and the cakes that mum baked every Sunday were left neglected on a plate in the cupboard. Years later mum would buy the fabled Arnotts Mint Slices and there would always be an open packet of round chocolate biscuits topped with mint flavored cream and coated in dark chocolate in the cupboard.
Even though mum’s main shopping day was Friday she also bought fresh meat mid week at the butchers. The butchers window was home to at least thirty metal trays of different parsley dressed meats. Sausages, mince, chops, cutlets, tripe, kidney, bacon, and rissoles all sat in their own trays in the window proudly enticing shoppers inside; their texture and colors unobstructed by plastic food wrap.
Legs of pork and lamb hung from hooks in the window. And sides of lamb and small joints hung from ceiling hooks behind the counter. I think the sawdust that was spread on the floor behind the counter was in recognition of the tradition of butchery and not to soak up spillage. Orders were either filled from the trays in the window or by asking the butcher to cut and prepare your preference from any of the hanging sides or joints. After the sawing and cleavering the cuts of meat were trimmed on the butchers block, weighed at the counter, and wrapped in several sheets of the butchers white paper. Most people left the butchers shop with several white paper wrapped parcels of meat.
And so I didn’t really know of any food that came wrapped in plastic. I never thought about the Mint Slice’s. The fruit shop was the place for fruit and vegetables just as the butcher was for meat; and you bought cakes, milk and bread at the cake shop or milk bar. As I navigated through adolescence to adulthood I don’t remember when I had the realization that food was being wrapped in plastic. I think it started when I put oranges and then apples into the plastic bags that had replaced the paper bags at the fruit shop. I didn’t notice that I was growing a plastic profile until it was to late: And it has slowly spread since arriving in America. At first I didn’t pay any attention to the expansion and growth; and then people started to notice.
I would stand in front of the produce shelves at supermarkets and gaze intently, chanting Warp; Warp; Warp until I reached a meditative state with the plastic wrapped vegetables. And then I discovered packaged peeled oranges. Some saw the concept of the skinless citrus as convenience gone mad but I asked if it was a shrine to Harold Warp and the plastic food wrap pioneers and visionaries who followed. The English honor the plastic prophets in their own unique way by questioning the robustness, naturalness, and biodegradability of a banana’s own packaging; cellophane wrapped bananas.
Sometimes I wonder why packaged meats have a sell by, use by or freeze by, packaged on, and an expiration date on the label stuck to the plastic the meat is wrapped in. The butcher always told mum how long the meat was good for and when she could cook it. And we always watched it being packed fresh in a few sheets of white butchers wrapping paper. Maybe the plastic is a shroud recognizing the oracles of plastic food wrapping.
And just a few days ago at a grocers that features foods without artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats I saw asparagus water for sale; plastic bottles of water with a few stalks of asparagus floating in them; just $5.99 each.
I don’t remember seeing a collection of food wrap at Pioneer Village. I think I will donate some sheets of white butchers wrapping paper.