International breakfast circles were roiled, as the Times might write, by the news last week that Tesco, the British supermarket chain, had decided to stop selling croissants that are shaped like croissants. Actually, the company announced that it would no longer be selling “curved croissants,” but, given that “croissant” means crescent, this wording was, to the linguistically alert, a bit self-cancelling: if it isn’t curved, it isn’t a croissant at all. In fairness, the word in English has migrated to mean not “crescent-shaped flaky breakfast bread” but “flaky breakfast bread,” a change that has also produced the New York practice that has bakery clerks calling a “pain au chocolat”—a cylinder of bread with chocolate inside—a “chocolate croissant,” even as they point to something that is not remotely shaped like a croissant but looks instead exactly like a pain au chocolat. I find this aggravating, and tend to say so, even if it puts me in the same boat as my younger, Italophile brother, who announces his annoyance when he is offered a “biscotti” when what he is getting is in fact a singular “biscotto.” (Yes, ours is a peculiar family, of parochial irritations.)
The reason that Tesco provides for its decision is in itself striking: the boss of the company, one Harry Jones, announced that it is the “spreadability” factor that has killed the kink, insisting that “the majority of shoppers find it easier to spread jam, or their preferred filling, on a straighter shape with a single sweeping motion.” I have turned these words over and over in my mind, like a pastille in the mouth, and have yet to find any meaning in them at all. How hard can it be for the Brits, even in these decadent post-imperial days, to use a spreading knife and, with a mere twist of the wrist, spread jam in a “single sweeping motion”? One can’t help but suspect—without evidence, but such is the nature of suspicion—that something to do with the added energy necessary to build a machine that squeezes out curved, as opposed to straight, croissant dough is behind Tesco’s decision.
Why is a croissant shaped that way, anyway? The first truth is that they are not, necessarily. As veteran visitors to Parisian bakeries know, the superior, all-butter croissants are already commonly articulated as straight pastries—or, at least, as gently sloping ones—while the inferior oil or margarine ones must, by law, be neatly turned in. This sometimes leads those who expect clarity and logic, rather than complexity and self-cancelling entrapment, from French laws to think that the straight croissants are all butter and the curved ones are reliably not. The truth is that a butter croissant can be any shape it chooses, on the general atavistic aristocratic principle that, butter being better, it creates its own realm of privilege.
One only wishes that Umberto Eco, whom we sadly lost last week, was still around to parse this issue, because Eco, long before he was king of the airport bookstore, was an emperor of signs, one of the world’s leading linguists and semioticians. The underlying logic for the croissant being a crescent, one suspects he would have said, is “Saussurean,” after the great early-twentieth-century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who glimpsed the truth that linguistic signs are arbitrary and find their meaning only by being clearly distinguished from other opposing signs. We know “Monday” only because it doesn’t sound or look like “Sunday.” P. G. Wodehouse, not surprisingly, showed his grasp of this rule when he had one of the Drones, on holiday in France, point out that he had been given a Continental breakfast consisting of “a roll shaped like a crescent and a roll shaped like a roll.” Without the standard accompanying brioche, there would be no need for the curve; a roll-shaped roll produces a curved one, as “Sunday” makes “Monday.” The croissant, in this view, is curved in order to make plain what it isn’t as much as what it is.
Murkier depths of meaning surely reside here, too, which would have taken Eco’s eye to plumb. Doubtless some social historian, a century or so hence, will get a thesis out of examining how, on the very verge of the threatened “Brexit”—the exit of England, at least, from the European Community—the mass marketers of Britain ostentatiously rejected a form seen as so clearly French that it is a regular part of that ominously named “Continental” breakfast. Adding an arbitrary national shape to an established one to attempt an entirely English croissant, that future scholar will argue, is an affirmation of refusing to be one with Europe. (The crescent, moreover, is the sign of the Islamic empire, and some damp, suspicious kinds will see meaning in that, too.)
On the other side of the Channel, the readiness of the Brits to drop the crescent shape is bound to be depressing—particularly as it arrives at the very moment when another lovely French bit of curvilinear detailing, the circumflex, is coming under assault as well. The circumflex is the little conical hat that many French words wear to indicate a sounded accent, but it will now be lost, or at least optional, on words like coût. According to the latest round of diktat from the Académie Française—or, actually, from a diktat some twenty-plus years old, but only now coming into force—the circumflex, which is indeed an impediment to obviousness in spelling, can be put away in the cupboard of needless old embroidery.
The era of the straightened-out croissant seems upon us; already this morning at Pret a Manger, the pastries look suspiciously closer to the pure vertical line. One need not be a helpless nostalgist to feel that unkinking the croissant, and decapitating the circumflex, comes at a cost, or coût. Taking the curve from the croissant, like taking the circumflex out of circulation, is a way of unbending the world, reducing the store of superfluous civilization that is essential to its sanity, and to our continuity. Let us not unbend our breakfast, or oversimplify our spelling too eagerly, or too soon. Such levellings, however efficient they may seem, in the end merely flatten our minds.
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