Kicking against the pips

Warning: oranges may contain seeds

Kicking against the pips
By John Ryle  •  30 November 1998  •  City of Words  •  The Guardian  •  Revised and expanded  •  Posted 2016  •  773 words

Drifting down the aisles at our local Tesco, lulled to a trance by the saturated lighting, drunk in the arms of consumerism, I find myself in the fruit and veg section, absent-mindedly palpating a half-ripe avocado, rattling a Cox’s orange pippin, scanning the cut-price, time-expired plums for bruises and spots of incipient decay, while struggling with thumb and forefinger to prise open one of those tear-off plastic bags to put the produce in without it falling on the floor.

At this point my eye is arrested by a label that carries the following warning: May Contain Seeds, it says. It is attached to an orange.

Has the label been misapplied? Mischievously transferred by a customer from a box of grapes? No, each orange in the box bears a tiny sticker with this warning, alongside one stating the country of origin.

Perhaps there’s been a health scare linking the seeds of citrus fruit to Alzheimer’s Disease, say, or aflatoxins?  It seems not. A passing shelf-stacker explains to me, with a cautious air, that some customers just like to be kept informed of these things.

But what kind of customer, I enquire, could be unaware that an orange has seeds? Seeds, after all, are what fruit is for. The part we eat is just nature’s packaging. The relation between fruit and seeds—I warm to my theme—is like the styrofoam round the hi-fi, like the corrugated cardboard lining a box of chocolates. The flesh of the fruit is nature’s protective layer—and its contact ad, designed to lure animals to eat and distribute seeds via their digestive tracts.

The shelf-stacker shrugs.

What’s more of a pain-in-the-ass, he is wondering, some pedant who wants to explain what seeds are for, or a lunatic who hasn’t noticed he’s in a supermarket and thinks he’s in a state of nature?

“Most people prefer satsumas,” he says, moving on. “They’re seedless, you know.”

Oranges are not the only citrus fruit

Ah yes. Seedless. No fat, no additives, no this, no that. And now—no seeds. It’s for this reason that satsumas, it turns out, are the current growth area in fruit sales—seven million a week in the UK, increasing ten per cent a year. Not because they are tastier than other kinds of citrus fruit, nor because of their kid-glove zipper-skins, nor because they have a longer shelf-life (they don’t). But because they are pip-free.

Unlike your orange or your tangerine—or your clementine or your common-or-garden mandarin—the satsuma is almost completely without seeds. And customer surveys indicate, according to a deadpan release from Tesco’s press office, that the surge in sales is due to a growing anxiety about eating oranges and other citrus fruits in public, a terror of recalcitrant peel, a horror of spitting out pips.

According to the Tesco press handout, customers report holding conversations in a fury of embarrassment while secreting pips between their teeth and their gums. They suffer the “agonising experience of trying to discreetly remove pips from mouths while pretending to read newspapers.”

Maybe such a balancing act, with newspaper and toothpick, is something you are engaged in at this moment—while secretly struggling, in the phrase of the press handout, to discreetly remove a recalcitrant pip from between your teeth? If so, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to also discreetly remove the split infinitives. Split infinitives seem to be a problem at the Tesco Press Office. Perhaps because they are too busy boldly going to think up more out-of-season April Fools.

Roses have thorns; newspapers have news

Food shopping is perilous, ridden with dangers. Cherries have stones. Meat has bones. And there are risks in the flower section too: allow me inform you, on behalf of Tesco, that roses have thorns.

Such warnings must be borne in mind, not only in the food section, but also at the news stand. Tesco management has responsibly drawn attention to the risk of pips between your teeth while reading the newspaper. But reading the paper has its own dangers. Just as oranges contain seeds, so newspapers contain news. And the news these days may well stick in your gullet.

In its quest to make the world safe for its customers, Tesco should surely post notices on the papers they sell, as they do on fruit. The notices would draw readers’ attention to safer alternatives to the publication you are now reading: papers such as the Sport or the Star which, having no news in them, offer a less threatening reading experience, one that is reassuringly fact-free. ★