Intermission 3# “Elf Oil”

It was 1983. I had been in Sydney a bare few days. It was my first (and as it transpired, temporary) act of immigration. We’d taken up residency on a mattress in an empty room in a rental house with some other Kiwis – already seasoned Aussies.

Next day I heard, as our hostess bounced out the front door, “”I’m going to the shops for some Elf Oil! Anyone need anything else?” – My head whirled with excitement, “What a place! you can even buy Elf Oil !” Whatever next?! I couldn’t wait to get inside one of their wondrous supermarkets. (But I’ll admit to wondering by then what Elf Oil was, exactly.)

I was destined to be intensely disappointed. Elf Oil turned out to be ‘Al-foil’; ‘aluminium foil’ – for cooking. I knew of it already. Utterly mundane stuff. Every household uses that!

But once upon a time it wasn’t so. Long long ago, I recall a world that lived without cooking foil. We all still managed to cook, despite having to use cookware made of ordinary common metals or crockery. These primitive things came in a wide range of sizes and shapes, some had lids, and they all worked. I recall may kinds of food successfully cooked and eaten during this dismal phase of human history – cakes, roasts, biscuits (but never ‘cookies’), even fish! Yes, yes: Aluminium did exist in those ancient times. Pots were made of it (‘saucepans’ to other speakers of English) and frying pans too.

Then Television came to New Zealand and with it the message that we and our primitive inadequate lifestyles were failing to benefit from a whole range of new and exciting products. I recall the arrival of potato chips (as distinct from ‘chips’ – which were merely made of potato, served with fish, and otherwise completely unrelated).

On TV we saw shiny happy people demonstrating how to open their shiny packets of this new miracle foodstuff and repeatedly stuff it into their happy mouths, while cheerful voices exhorted us to mimic this obviously joyful and socially enhancing experience.

Thus we all took to potato chips. There was 1 flavour: Salt. (It’s now called “Original!”)

I also recall with breathless excitement the arrival of themed icecreams-on-a-stick. We losers always had the ‘chocolate bomb’, but Television soon showed us how inadequate they were. We needed to be hip and switch to ingesting almost identical icecreams-on-sticks dipped in a cheaper grade of chocolate then smothered in a crunchy layer of crushed rice-bubbles of such garish colour that I doubt they’d now get FDA approval. All this for another 12 cents per unit! (One of them was called the ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, I kid you not. It sold for an extra 15 cents per unit, and how glad we were to pay the extra!)

And so on. It is, in fact, a recognised fact of commerce: certain types of crap .. sorry; products .. can only achieve mass market penetration and acceptance via TV. Introduce them before the marketing machinery is in place and they’ll die the sad lonely death they really deserve. But with TV marketing – hell: the suckers will buy anything!

So along came cooking foil. I remember it well. Out of the blue we were suddenly bombarded with the Miraculous News; cookery had changed for all time! The cheerful celebrity chefs of the time were suddenly telling us that everything we’d ever done was wrong. Lids? forget them! “It’s so easy; just cover the dish with aluminium foil and pop a few holes in it for the steam, now bake in the exact same oven at the usual temperature and it’ll come out perfect!” Ditto the women’s magazines and cook-books. Everyone was revamping their recipes to include a generous splash of aluminium. Prepare! Line the dish! Create layers! Wrap fish! Cover! Roll! Use it to store food in the fridge!

Its uses were nigh-on infinite, and we were all suckered. We purchased literally millions of miles of aluminium foil, used it once, and threw it away as instructed. And that is exactly what They wanted – a market. It was not a case of “Find a need and fill it,” it was a case of “Create a need for this frivolous crap we’ve invented that no-one really needs!”

And why was the entire thing a crock of crap? (And still is?) Because if anything, a super-thin layer of aluminium does nothing except slow the cooking process down. WARNING! SCIENCE CONTENT:

Heat gets into food in three ways: Conduction, Convection, and Radiation:

Radiant Heat: Al-foil deflects it really well. If you were only relying of radiant heat, your foil-wrapped food would never cook. Conclusion 1# – Foil slows down cooking. Energy is wasted.

Conductive Heat: aluminium is an excellent conductor. As long as there is a large contact area with other oven metals, cooking proceeds well. But a lot of the time, the foil bundle is just “popped on the rack ready to cook!” 2# – Foil slows down cooking. Energy is wasted.

Convective Heat: circulating air moves heat around inside an oven. Oven-temperature air does most of the convective heat delivery. But wrap the food in foil, or cover it, and you obstruct the circulation. 3# – Foil slows down cooking. Energy is wasted.

Thus we pay money for a product that wastes our time and increases our power bill, then we usually throw it away after one use. Aluminium has one of the highest carbon-footprints of all metals (it can only be made via an energy-intensive electrical process), so there is also a final cost – to our climate.

Ladies and Gentlemen, start you ovens. But please: Cease using cooking foil! … Look out instead for Original Elf Oil! That’s the cooking miracle you need!


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