We keep being told that the food that we eat, why we buy it, how we buy it, how we cook it (or get someone else to cook it for us) and how, ultimately, we dispose of it speaks volumes about us.
I’d like to make one small addition to that: the language of why, when and how we dispose of it speaks volumes about us and our broader concepts of thriving, success and prosperity.
I’d like to focus us specifically on the subject of food thrift and particularly, leftovers.
Now if you’re that way inclined or have a grandparent who puts you straight about profligate waste and showing off with food, the topic titles are just fine. But be aware that you are in the minority.
For most people, grinding through the weekly job, making ends meet and trying to rise above it all, thrift and cooking with ‘old food’ just isn’t going to roll. In fact, their response to the kind of language I’ve used above is probably slightly more of a DOUBLE ALERT. GO TO DEF CON 3. KLAXON WAIL. WHOOP WHOOP nature. With a massive warning of impending Tree hugging and shirts knitted from mung beans not far behind.
For most people the first massive language klaxon is the phrase Food thrift. God alive. Save us all from sack-cloth-and-ashes cooking. A trip to the supermarket, even with a price checker in hand, is an exercise in thriving, culminating in a trolley overflowing with goodies, some with the wrappers already off (profound evidence of our new found right of entitlement – no more do children get sent to the work house or have their hands cut off for pilfering what they haven’t paid for – we’re civilised goddammit).
Food is meant to be joyous, piled high. An ‘eat all you can buy, buy all you can eat’ algebraic equation of y= 4in1x3for2+BOGOF to the power of XtraFill mountain. 36 pack of pre seared barbecue burgers only £1.99!!
Or if your tastes run a little fancier, food is an exercise in sumptuous delights via plates of tantalised veal and gizzard cuts in jus de truffe and beluga-drip-drenched jaune Tuna slices, three rib of beef, salt and rosemary rubbed, amidst curlicued cures of pork, slices, rips and knuckles of lamb savoury seasoned, steamed and sugared pudding syrups running with sweet blood, an avalanche of oaten crackers and thick sourdough crusts decorated with glancing blows of soft and hard sharp cheeses, iced sponges, jam schmeered and chocolate vanilla’d delights. A Captain Bligh-scale of Bounty.
Whichever; whatever: food is meant to be plentiful and a sign of ‘we’ve made it’.
Food thrift?! We’re standing on the shoulders of Maslow, mate. And you can stick your hierarchy where the sun don’t shine.
As an aside, I think Sackcloth & Ashes would make a fabulous new and urbane food establishment somewhere very mauve and happening – given the current popularity of ashes and charcoal in leading edge bread baking, cheese rolling, beast searing and the higher order philosophies of brutalist retro-cooking circles. I see the interior of Sackcloth & Ashes as having a faint whiff of the medieval Cistercian façade – the odd weathered sandstone gargoyle: and a large blackened stone-mantled fireplace (obvs). There’d be a little light Gregorian House Chant muzak for a Clash of Cloths (as I like to call the collision between one elevated Christian house and another). And of course we’d frame it as a post-modern tapas (main course size dishes) – and fill the world with all manner of sackcloth slung ash-rind cheeses and charcoal cured meats, coal bleached fish, charcoal-truffled beast cheek bricquettes (though I am uncertain as to whether the truffled briquettes can double as a sustainable fuel source or whether they are a sustainable fuel source doubling as a main course).
Anyway, I digress. Food Thrift is a complete turn off for most people chasing a shiny life and, as a phrase, is best avoided if you’re trying to appeal to those who simply wish to live the dream and tie one on in life.
Second Klaxon: the word Leftovers. Oh here we go again. More bleeding heart student stipends and stories from the back of the fridge. Leftovers is a poisoned chalice of goodness to the average person seeking to Live the Dream of a prosperous and socially advanced life.
Leftovers are for losers and food geeks.
In his book, The 10 Food Commandments Jay Rayner points to the issue directly in his chapter helpfully titled Though Shalt Eat Leftovers.
‘There is only one problem with leftovers. The word. Leftovers. It speaks of expediency and second best.’
Not a dissimilar issue to the one where people view the words Ethical and Organic as euphemisms for sub-standard – a trade-off between higher morality and lower quality.
Jay goes on to write that ‘As history has shown us, excess food should simply be thought of as an ingredient rather than something left behind.’
As always our desperate, socially-climbing, gene-pool-elevating selves play an enormous role in there somewhere.
Toffs and Nobs use the act of leaving a plate, meal or table still laden with uneaten food as an act of social and genetic exceptionalism.
I can afford to not scrabble for crusts. And my largesse knows no bounds.
Leaving food behind is a mark of not starving. The American Dream was a relentlessly infinitely rotating buffet of food, and a never empty plate (more specifically, one that required some form of funicular to get from the top to the bottom of it). Because the American Dream represented the journey from Nothing to Something. And Somethings don’t scratch for food.
And the post-meal gesture of ‘hey ,can I have that to go’ – that throw-back to the pioneer settler thrift of nothing is wasted – is just code for I’ll take it home, pop it in the fridge for a few days; then landfill it.
Leftover food is a slightly twisted sign of prosperity. Yeah. Eat my trash. I’ve eaten my land-fill. The clue is in the language.
Leftover is short-hand for lacking utility; the debris and detritus left over from the functional and precious act of preparing and then eating food: food that is unwanted, or worse, unneeded and therefore devalued (as if anyone doesn’t need food or the money it took to buy it to throw it away).
Leftovers are Ex-food. Like GFs and BFs, leftovers are destined to turn up on MyExF[ood] revenge sites and Landfill Porn.
The language is the issue. As always, what some view disdainfully as fluff and word-smithing can make the difference between dismissal and engagement in a rather fundamental way.
LivingTheDream are a team of people seeking to shift the narrative of sustainable living and prosperity in a more ordinary and meaningful direction – from the likes of the glass half empty reduction language of Sustainable Living Plans to the glass half full aspiration language of Smarter Lighter living – and as one of them I think that perhaps we need to sort the language of Leftovers and food thrift while we’re at it.
The whole language of leftovers needs a restart. An Extreme Makeover.
So what should we do?
A national school’s competition perhaps; to rename Leftovers so your Mum and Dad actually take an interest because its socially cool to do so?
(And when I say Mums and Dads I don’t mean the 7-12% of the Luxury of Conscience brigade who embrace every purist green and sustainability trend in much the same way a fading actor might clutch a new script, as if it every one might be their last, the most precious fragile cornerstone of their identity.)
We could give them some buckets or examples to start them off.
Perhaps we could start by looking at the physical geography of it all.
Leftovers, either at the ingredient stage – off cuts, scrapings, tops and tails, bones, etc. – or the post cooked stage – on-plate, on-table scraps – find themselves at the ‘edges’ of the cutting board, plate or table – pushed to the periphery of the working or functional space. So perhaps we could get windswept and interesting and introduce peripheral cooking or Peripherique Cooking as a whole new movement – or ‘food at the edge’ as we’d get the critics to call it. Who knows, given all that empty shelf space left by the dear departed tomes of Clean Food, perhaps we can sneak in with a small volume on Peripherique cooking.
Then again we could look to word play, opposites, antonyms and synonyms – Left Over replaced by the idea of Right Under. Right Under recipes are those recipes that are right under your nose and you can’t see them for the left overs. I would class Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Spag Bol Omelette as one of these sublime moments of ‘ under my very nose’ stokes of genius.
Or we could leap headfirst into Kardashian land and talk trash. We could go junktrunk cooking or we could go the whole hog – Truck Stop Trash Talk Cooking – because we all love trashy.
#eatmytrash as a movement of pure self-celebration – even my food trash makes exceptional dinner party cuisine – cue Instagram.
And admit it – #eatmytrash could be so much fun, mainly because it’ll get hijacked and turned into some bizarre sexual euphemism eventually – and a website after that.
But if, in the meantime, it reignites the mass populace’s interest in divesting themselves of excess and waste in favour of taking every piece of left-over food and turning it into something, that would be, well, something.
So Leftovers are a beautiful thing, but there is an element of Boy Named Sue about them. Their name has forced them into a life of having to fight their corner – stand up for themselves – but in this case, it ain’t making them stronger – not any more at least. Quite the opposite.
So let’s relaunch Leftovers – unfetter them from their current name and give them a chance to be their fabulous agile and resourceful and mostly delicious selves.
Who knows what fun we could have.