Monday, June 22, 2009

A feast in the cupboard

This post started as a comment on "Not Waving" but by the time it had turned into three paragraphs, I realised I should clutter up my own blog with my rant on food wastage and the tyranny of the "best before" tag. Before I get in my stride, let's be clear that I'm not advocating eating anything that has gone off or is so old that its nutritional value has disappeared completely. But really ...

Home Mum of Two informs us that 6.7 million tonnes of food are thrown out every year and she is passing on a "food wastage tag", where the tagee has to agree to use up all left overs for a week, or suffer the "eat a lemon" punishment.

Well I know where quite a bit of the 6.7 million tonnes has ended up.

Last week, one of my neighbours had their bin bag ransacked by the local foxes, cats and magpies. When I took Spot out for his morning walk I had to haul him away from all the delights strewn over the road. While it's not my normal habit to inspect my neighbours bins (honestly), I was aghast to see how much food had just been thrown away. No wonder the wildlife had found it such a feast. What I saw were their leavings. Meat, cheese, bread, yoghurt, fruit. Lord knows what was there before. Foie gras, presumably.

When I mentioned this to friends, they commented that they had thrown out a cheese because it was out of date. For a start, I can't imagine having food around that I forgot about till it had gone off. And if it was getting near to the limit, it would be put to some good use. Cheese would be grated up and frozen ready to stick on some future Mad special.

"Best before date". Gah. When I had to clear out my mother's house, we found some interesting archaeological finds in the larder. The furry dates. The Nescafe granules that had turned into a small tar-like lump. Madette and Junior Mad were helping and they kept reading the "best before" and out-bidding each other on how old things were. This was 2001 and we found many things that were supposed to have been out of date in the mid 1990s. The prize was won by Junior Mad who had found something that was out of date before he was born. That would be 1983.

But, of course, there were loads of things that had no best before date at all. They even pre-dated "best before". They would have all been out if we hadn't applied some common sense into what we were doing. Honestly, bi-carb (NaHCO3) doesn't really need a best before.

I grew up in a simple working-class home where there was very little cash for luxuries. My maternal grandmother had been widowed with five children to feed so my mother grew up knowing how to stretch the meat and to create yet another meal from the left-overs, combined with a few more vegetables and a pie-crust. My father liked simple plain food and we ate seasonal food and homegrown vegetables. Left-overs were tomorrow's meal.

This was not a perfect world. I had never seen a pepper until I left home. Sometimes food was bland since neither of my parents would have knowingly eaten garlic or much in the way of other seasoning. The only herbs I ever encountered were parsley and thyme. Foreign food was exactly that: foreign. But there was no waste food.

I still remember being sent outside in the middle of the winter to eat my dinner (what we called the meal eaten in the middle of the day). The rule was that if you put food on your plate, you had to eat it up. On this occasion, I didn't eat it up. Then I compounded my error by alleging it was yuck. It possibly was yuck since I recollect that it was a dark green and part of the cabbage family. My mother had cooked it into submission. But out I went and had to stay there until I had finished it.

Socially and professionally, I have been privileged to travel to some of the most amazing places on the planet and eat in wonderful restaurants. From a modest home, I learnt to enjoy the good life but the lessons of the hearth tend to stick. A few years ago, I found myself needing to watch the pennies very, very carefully. As long as I was careful, everything would be ok but I couldn't afford to let anything slip. I set myself a frugal housekeeping budget and planned meals to fit the budget. All the left-over habits all came back. And I've never let them go again.

Having a dog helps ... Spottie Boy and I visited Madette yesterday. Lunch in a smashing pub looking out over the Cam. A lovely young couple sitting opposite failed to clear their plates and asked if he would like the roast beef. And the veggies too!

Between the compost, the left-overs and the wormery, there's nothing to put in the kitchen macerator. It sits there with its evil jaws hanging open, starved.

Yes, I'd be cheating if I took on the challenge too. If you feel inspired to take it on, then I can offer a slightly wrinkled lemon to encourage you to stick with it.


  1. I finally stopped buying food because I should and it would just waste.

    No waste here for quite some time.

    I can't imagine throwing away's "spoiled" even when it's fresh. I'm like you, bag it and freeze it for melting later.

  2. Re: best before dates. We have a rule in our house that if it isn't green and furry and it smells ok, eat it. Best before dates are both a backside covering exercise for the food industry and a way to get us to spend more of our hard-earnt. End of rant. Jean.

  3. We're on a tight budget at the moment, no waste here. My mum and dad abhor waste as they suffered through war rations - that never leaves you and was instilled in us.

  4. Wonderful post, MAD. And thank you for taking up my gauntlet and passing it onto your bloggettes, even if you are not one to waste food yourself.

    Personally, I can't imagine not clearing a plate (a lesson I guess drummed into me in my childhood but I have no traumatic experiences - or al fresco dining - to recall). My challenge though is to LEAVE some in the pot to have for leftovers the next day. A double-edged pledge-cum-diet...arrgh!

  5. "My mother had cooked it into submission"....still laughing as I type! My mother too!
    I take your point though. I used to be very wasteful with groceries but in recent years I have learned to only buy what I need when I need it. When it gets down to it, we really do not need as much food as we buy.

  6. l'm with you, but I want to unwrap my groceries and leave the packagings at the till, that might hit a spot..but cannot find the answer to whether I get into trouble for littering or whether I could be starting a movement to get something done about it all..

  7. Brilliant post and one of my own personal bug-bears. Other Half was brought up differently to me. My parents were children in Kent in the war, they experienced rationing to the extreme and therefore passed on 'want not, waste not' to me. I pretty much ignore eat by, sell by and use by dates and I'm only 41. Other Half's parent however seemed to have a completely different war up here in Scotland, they seem to have no problem with throwing food away and this has come down to Other Half, he sometimes works away and comes home and stands at the fridge with the door open and the bin by his side throwing away food after food simply because it's either out of date or even worse NEARLY out of date!

    This INSENSES me to beyond beleif, to the point now where I actually remove the use by sell by eat by date from as much packaging as possible, a carrot is out of date when it's soft and bendy and even then it goes into the compost heap NOT the bin.

    Agggghhhhh sorry MBNAD Woman, I've clogged your blog with a rant

  8. Right so here we are: ignoring all the best before bolleaux, eating up the strange stuff at the back of the fridge and making interesting recipes involving all those small bits of pasta at the end of the packets, the last scrape of marmalade and a curly-edged bit of Brie. So it's the rest of the beggars who are leaving the 6.7 tonnes of food go to waste ...

    FF&50: packaging. Don't get me going on that. If I pick up fruit or veg in the supermarket, I always buy it loose and then present it in little handfuls to the checkout staff. They eye me with a mixture of loathing and pity. One youngster heplfully pointed out that they provide little plastic bags and couldn't get it at all when I said that I knew.

    I feel a purple hat day coming on.


  9. me too! nothing gets wasted round here - we are too skint to throw food away but even if we weren't i am always aware of how many people in the world are hungry. i do the loose veggie thing too...


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