I hope some of you, after you finish reading this column, will go straight to urbaneat.co.uk, where you can find out all about such “real food” as the “hand-crafted” red Thai chicken wrap I saw advertised in my local Costa clone yesterday. (Costa clones are coffee shops so lacking in self-esteem that they’re “proud to serve Costa coffee”.) This particular wrap was pictured apparently lying in the roadway of Benefits Street – or at any rate, somewhere gritty and urban – with a disproportionately small sign by it that had been amended to read “a tasty DIVERSION”. The wrap got me to wondering: is it only me who’s noticed the way that wraps have stealthily and relentlessly infiltrated our fast-food culture? I asked my wife when she was first aware of wraps and she said, “Oh, the early 1990s, I suppose – I mean, they came in with Pret a Manger, didn’t they?”
I found her answer admirable, twining together as it did two equally hazy recent timelines into one uchronic vision of happy Labour party activists wolfing down wraps while they waved Union Jacks and watched Tony and Cherie skip up the steps of No 10. I don’t buy it: there may have been a few wraps around in the mid-Nineties but this was only a small and unleavened beachhead: the main invasion force came later.
It’s much the same sort of phenomenon as rap. There was some rap music and related phenomena (hip-hopping, crack-smoking, ho-bashing, bling-flashing) around as early as the beginning of the 1980s but it wasn’t until this millennium that rap was completely wefted through the wider cultural warp.
The more I thought about this, the more it seemed to me that the coincidence between wraps and rap was nothing of the sort; both are, after all, syncretic phenomena. In rap’s case, this is a fusion of African-American soul and funk with the turntable-created percussive breaks and other sound effects pioneered by Jamaican dub musicians such as Lee “Scratch” Perry. The wrap, on the other hand, comes from the Mexican burrito, by way of other flatbread snacks long present in the Turkish, Kurdish and Iranian cuisines, to name but three.
And while rap music is made by black working-class men and largely listened to by white middle-class boys, wraps are mostly made by economic migrants on zero-hours contracts and eaten by middle-class office workers on the hoof. You can see what I’m driving at here: it was only a matter of time before the red Thai chicken wrap came into being; even if no one had ever made one, such is its culturally overdetermined character that it would have had to self-assemble. That it should also be “halal approved” goes without saying – but should instead be shouted, like the muezzin’s call, from the rooftops of mud-brick houses.
The wrap is still more fundamental to western Judaeo-Christian and Islamic culture than we perhaps care to acknowledge: beside its great antiquity, the sandwich is a mere parvenu, the hamburger a mayfly that’s soon to … die. In Exodus, the Lord pelts the Israelites first with quail (yum!) and then with flatbread (or “manna”, as they perversely name it). It’s not recorded whether any Bronze Age Heston Blumenthal had the smart idea of boning the quail and wrapping it in the manna together with a few herby sprigs but how else can we explain the sacerdotal role that manna henceforth had? No one’s going to place a few manky bits of bread in the Ark of the Covenant alongside the Mosaic tablets – but a quail wrap makes perfect sense.
This also explains why the latter-day wraps have had such an easy time converting our dyspeptically secular society: they slot right into the atavistic hunger that torments us when, like the Israelites, we find ourselves wandering for 40 minutes in some desert part of town devoid of fast-food outlets. We see, perhaps, the oasis of a petrol station and, stumbling in, heave a sigh of relief, for the Lord in his infinite wisdom has seen fit to stock the shelves with wraps – wraps such as the chicken Caesar, another of Urban Eat’s “real foods”; hand-crafted with xanthan gum, sorbic acid, diphosphates, acidity regulator, modified maize starch, sodium carbonates, malic acid, mono and diglycerides of fatty acids and – in case your appetite isn’t fully whetted – that ingredient beloved of the people of the book, locust bean gum. Thanks be to God.