The Enduring Empire (aka Earth vs Soup)

Saturday 16 April 2011

Everything on Wikipedia is contentious: tomato soup is no exception. Since an entry first appeared in January 2006 – a mere three sentences describing it only as a tinned food, with “the consistency of cream of wheat and… tarty to the taste” – the humble comfort food has been a source of trivial controversy.

This is, of course, to be expected; yet in five years this brief article has been subjected to an unusually high level of arbitrary editing. Beside racist taunts, casual denigration of tomato soup, and mysterious references to the 1998 Swiss Tomato Soup Rebellion, debate has smouldered on the discussion pages over whether the ability to be served both hot and cold is noteworthy, and whether it is necessary to provide a citation demonstrating that tomato soup is, in fact, a soup made of tomatoes. It has also been the blameless target of revisions attributing the soup with the ability to increase sperm count, or of actually being a powdered donut made from llamas.

Despite all this, one element has remained constant for the past four years, surviving every revision and reversion since February 2007:

The American composer Robert Ashley wrote “Empire”, a section of his opera Atalanta (Acts of God), on the origins and proliferation of tomato soup.

Wonderfully, as well as being an excellent opera by one of the past century’s greatest composers, “Empire” deals with tomato soup purely as an industrial commodity, precisely as described in it’s original Wikipedia entry. Even more wonderfully, Ashley has stated that “Empire” is in fact

an allegorical telling of the founding of one of the great multinational corporations. The story was told to me by the scion of the family of that corporation. I have changed the names (and the product) to protect the privacy of the source. And I have deliberately made the metaphor (soup) more casual and humorous than the actuality of corporate America.

For all these years, the one constant in Wikipedia’s quest for authoratitiveness has been an operatic metaphor. Ashley has also stated that Atalanta (Acts of God) is an opera about story-telling, about the persistence of myth through its mutability. Already, Wikipedia has imbued “Empire”‘s origin myth with an obstinate authenticity of the sort that outlasts conventional history.

  1. Dear Mr. .Harper.
    I have enjoyed your investigative journalism. Given your soup expertise, how about a story on Nicolas Collins’ “Pea Soup”? http://www.nicolascollins.com/peasouptracks.htm
    Yours Sincerely,
    Michael Graeve

  2. Good question. Not so familiar with the Collins piece. Worse still: no mention of it in the Wikipedia article on the soup. It’s interesting to note that the Wikipedia entry on “pea soup” is much more comprehensive than the tomato soup entry, yet relatively free of controversy other than a fleeting reference to “Exorcist vomit.”