Josna Rege

143. Waste Not, Want Not

In 1960s, Britain, Family, Food, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on March 25, 2012 at 1:11 am

Clean Your Plate, Save the World? ( Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco/Files

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.

photo: Tyrone Turner

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.

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  1. josna,
    I distinctly remember a similar life of thrift…we never bought any mushrooms, since the markets rarely sold them..,,but i remember an occasion in the eighties where after loading a child’s plate with twice the amount of cheese and bread, the mother turned to her an said…if you cant finish it, dont worry. we can throw it away? This was at a time when cheese was still a luxury food item and was only temperamentally available in our Indian markets.

    You are right about the waste not, want not bit….it means a disciplined and on your toes household management that one has to do all the time?
    Which can get very tiring…i think the tradition of distributing leftovers was a wonderful option.
    We substituted that with recycling leftovers….and im not sure that has worked.

    This pongal, my sister and i distributed the making of the sweet and savoury pongal and the vegetable stew among ourselves (she did the pongals and i made the stew)
    So all the quantities we had made were consumed at the collective luncheon and there were no leftovers? Of course, this cant be done everyday unless we embark upon community kitchens with a few neighbours?

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Ratna. It is shocking how quickly such changes have taken place, within a single generation, or even less, in some cases.
      I agree that the tradition of distributing leftovers was a good one, especially in preventing waste and actually feeding hungry people with the excess from the plates of the wealthy. To my understanding, though, it was a kind of noblesse oblige, not a bad thing in itself, but based on a feudal/caste-based system; one that, rather than meaningfully redistributing the wealth, instead expected those with wealth and power to be more responsible to those whose lives and livelihoods were dependent on them.
      You’re right that it does take hard work and good management to run a waste-free household–the latter certainly not my strong suit, and harder and harder when we are all so busy.
      I love the idea of sharing big cooking jobs. It definitely makes these celebrations more enjoyable for the women who are doing most of the preparations.
      And finally, community kitchens–brilliant! These may be the wave of the future. Have you heard about the women’s compartment on the commuter train from Mumbai to Pune and back, in which the women, who spent so many hours of their day commuting, shared the food preparation for their evening meals on the train itself!

  2. One of the problems seems to be that we are just spoiled, and would rather not eat left overs. My challenge is often to present them in a different form, in which case they seem entirely new again. For example, almost anything wrapped in pastry and baked again gets
    rave reviews even though it is only leftover food from the last two days!

    I have noticed that children in this country are often allowed to eat whatever they ask for rather than what is put in front of them, as we were. That seems to be asking for trouble later when they are adults.

    Growing up in a poorer country may have had some influence but I still think it is the attitude of the adults in a family that has the most influence in a child’s eating habits and understanding. Don’t you?

    • Yes, Marianne, I do think that the adults in the family establish the norms and values, regardless of where a child grows up. And I agree that children should learn to eat what has been prepared and what everyone else is eating without having their every whim catered to. I must say, though, that much as I have the tendency nowadays to make a large batch of something and then go on eating it all week, I think it is cruel and unusual, not to mention unappetizing, when overly strict parents keep serving up the same old food until their child is forced to eat it. Children who are offered good, fresh food will usually eat it and develop a taste for it, too. If they don’t like or want it, forcing won’t help, in my experience. On the other hand I remember some friends coming over for dinner with me, allowing their child to run all over the house while we were eating, and then fussing over him after dinner when he complained that he was hungry.
      But I’ve strayed completely from the subject of thrift and waste! What I wanted to say was how much I liked the idea of “anything wrapped in pastry and baked again”—delicious!

  3. In the day-to-day hustle and bustle there’s a constant competition between time and thrift, isn’t it? If only we could all take an oath to slow down as a planet and take a moment to think, really! Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    • Very true, Hema. Why does it sometimes seem so hard to do this? We even tend to think of time in the terms of the money economy, so that we feel that we need to “spend” time in order to save. As if slowing down and taking the time isn’t a precious gift of its own, which allows us to be thoughtful about conserving and sharing resources. Thanks for your comment.

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