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After Work: I'll Read Anything

When a compulsive reader of labels on bottles and packets visits the supermarket he/she can find themselves imaginatively whisked away to distant Zanzibar, as Dona Gibbs reveals in this sparkling column.

To read more of Dona's delectable words click on After Work in the menu on this page.

Put words in front of me and I’ll read them. Really read them, not merely notice them.

This long-ingrained habit makes a trip to the supermarket take three times as long as it should. My reading extends beyond the recommended label perusal to note nutritional information. That I can do quickly on the spot, but if I spy a specialty item, Texas Pete pepper sauce, for example, I’ll stop and read all the copy.

Texas Pete is a nostalgic item from my childhood. It’s a smallish but tall bottle stuffed with Tabasco peppers and topped off with vinegar. The label says it’s “excellent when used on greens, dry beans and Mexican dishes.”

It’s made not in Texas as you might think but in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The only thing Texan about it is the inch and a half high cowboy wearing chaps and ten-gallon hat and cracking a bullwhip.

Then there’s Chicago Oldtown Spiced Sugar that features a simple sepia label which tells us: “This is a delightful variation of vanilla sugar, sophisticated by the addition of high oil cinnamon and the elusive cardamom pod.”

That causes all kind of movies to spool in my brain. One features intrepid hunters creeping through the spice groves of Zanzibar, danger at every turn, searching for the “elusive cardamom pod.”

One throws a warning look to his fellow hunter and points to a pod half hidden in the heavy foliage.

There it is. The elusive cardamom! Bring it back alive.

All this daring for something I sprinkle on buttered toast. Or “sophisticating my breakfast,” the writer might say.

The Grandma’s Molasses label is an informative read and includes recipes for gingerbread cookies and another for barbecue sauce and this puzzling tip in a “Did you know panel.”

“It’s easy to make brown sugar. To make brown sugar, mix 1 cup granulated sugar with ˝ cup molasses.” Hmm.

I guess I have a soft spot for the writers who labor over such things. When I first started out in the ad world, my first task was to write the back panel copy for a laundry product, which was pitched to new moms as an especially gentle soap for baby things. Actually, this very special soap was a by-product, the leftover chips and chunks that remained from manufacturing bar soap, but that didn’t make good sales copy.

What should have been an hour job writing 175 words turned into two months’ worth of back and forth between my boss, the account people and the client and me.

I’ll have to check to see if my prose remains the next time I’m in a grocery store in a soft water area. You see, this particular product isn’t sold everywhere. Where water contains a lot of minerals, the soap can cause those minerals to precipitate on the clothes, giving the precious one’s onesies an unappealing dingy look. That doesn’t make good box copy either. You know, you can take this truth in advertising only so far.

My hat’s off and my heart goes out to the writer who labored over Vanity Fair Premium 3-Ply Napkins.

We’re told to “Make every dining occasion elegant.” After some lyrical praise for these paper napkins which feature “our stylish Monterey Shell embossed design,” we’re offered tips for our “ next elegant get-together.”

These suggestions are truly poignant. One reads, “Be spontaneous: you don’t need a holiday, birthday or special occasion to entertain—all you need are guests.”

And here’s something, which my brain will never be able to shake: “It’s easy to recall where to place glasses and bread plates. Just think: drink right, eat left.”

Beyond the grocery shelves, there’s more unexpected reading pleasure. Don’t get me started on the full-page disclosures that accompany prescription drug ads. The potential side effects sound worst than the ailment the drug is meant to treat. Read the warnings for Viagra for some graphic examples and try, just try, to get those pictures out of your head.

Read the miniscule type on financial products ads, and you’ll take to keeping your money under the mattress.

Check into a less than five-star hotel and read the little notices about the hotel’s concern about saving the planet. This always makes me feel guilty while using up all the very thin towels every day.

Hotels’ communications are consistently great reads, especially when they’re unexpectedly amusing. Recently in a luxury hotel on the French Riveria, we used the hotel’s laundry service. We had to; there was no choice if we were look and smell civilized.

Of course, with the price of having our laundry done, we could have stayed an extra day. That’s the way it is with hotel laundries.

When we received our clean clothes back, variously elegantly wrapped in tissue in a wicker basket or meticulously hung on sturdy hangers, a note fluttered out.

“The spots remaining on this clothe are rebellious, while insisting, we risk of the deteriorer.”

That made it worth the price.


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