My father has always had a horror of waste. If my sister or I left any food on our plates he would feel compelled to finish it for us. There was no need for him to mention the children starving in India—we saw them all around us every day. Whenever we went to the IIT students’ hostels for special functions, which always included delicious dinners, we saw the children scrambling to polish off any scraps of food left on the plates after the feast.
My mother taught thrift by example. When she cooked, she made everything from scratch. On the rare occasions she made pancakes, always a special treat in 1960s India with food rationing and white flour a precious commodity, she gave us all the perfect ones and ate only the rejects, usually the first and the last. She didn’t talk much about the poverty of her childhood, focusing instead on special treats and times of plenty; but quite recently she mentioned something in passing that spoke volumes. I was washing and chopping mushrooms, perhaps to make a mushroom gravy for a lavish Thanksgiving spread, when she observed that she didn’t see a whole mushroom until she was an adult, since her mother could afford to buy only the stalks. It shames me to think of how much of the mushrooms I waste when I clean and prepare them, sometimes throwing the stalks away entirely.
Of course, the horror of waste can go too far. Forcing oneself to eat food one doesn’t want or need is neither good for one’s own health nor does it feed starving children. And if one composts organic waste, it is not wasted but returns to enrich the soil. Nevertheless, a culture of waste squanders precious resources, increases food prices, puts increased pressure on farmers, and breeds bad habits that multiply and perpetuate the problem. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American throws away 40 pounds of food every month. I know that I buy food and, rather than constructing the week’s meals around what I have in the fridge, forget it until it’s too late. We would do well to recall the thrift of our parents’ generation.