Tuesday 11 September 2007

Why tasting beats wasting

Wartime food rationing in the UK finally ended on 4 July 1954, a month after I was born. It would probably have been better for me if it had continued. We know that the general health of the population improved during the war. The suicide rate also plummeted, and there was allegedly a spirit of national solidarity that we have been seeking to rebuild ever since. There is a whole generation, comprising the young adults of 1939-45, who will gladly tell you that it was the best time of their lives. Though this could just prove that young adulthood is the best time of anyone’s life, however unpromising the conditions.

Whilst people of my age were brought up in a country that had “never had it so good”, we were raised by parents whose experiences meant that they simply loathed waste. Food never ended up in the bin. If I didn’t clear every scrap from my plate, I got a lecture about starving children in Africa.

How times have changed, I reflected as I read a leaflet delivered by the council last month. Apparently in Alnwick District alone, 3,400 tonnes of food each year is consigned to landfill. In order to cut this down, the authorities make a series of staggeringly patronising suggestions: “Before you shop, try and have some idea of the meals you are going to make over the coming week; check what you already have in the house; make a list of what you need …”

Blimey, who’d ever have thought of that? It goes on: “Stick to your shopping list; don’t be tempted to buy things that you don’t need or will not be able to use (the biggest culprit is buy one, get one free offers); check the use by dates on the products and avoid buying if you will not use them within that date.”

Coming soon from your council: an illustrated guide demonstrating the right way to sit on a toilet, with handy hints to reduce paper usage.

Quite apart from my indignation at paying tax to fund the production of this litany of the unbelievably bleeding obvious, I was struck once again by the contemporary tyranny of the “use by” date. I subsisted through most of last winter on a stockpile of tinned soup that either bore use by dates between 1994 and 1996, or had been produced before anyone even thought of adding use by dates to tinned food. I regularly retrieve things from the freezer that have been there for a decade, and find them perfectly palatable. Amazingly, I am still very much alive at the time of writing.

Over the years I had defended my soup collection against numerous relationship-threatening assaults by passing girlfriends, determined to consign them to the bin. Once, when my back was turned, one actually succeeded in emptying my fridge, throwing out a superb range of jams and marmalades. This was particularly galling as the use by dates on their lids related to the original contents and not their actual ones, all of which had been lovingly handmade by my aunt. I still wake up with a start at nights sometimes, reliving the awful sense of loss.

The only thing I can find in my pantry now that is apparently not destined to become lethal after a certain date is a packet bearing the following legend: “Sugar is a natural preservative and if stored in a cool dry place will keep indefinitely”. I can’t help feeling that someone in Silver Spoon’s marketing department is missing a trick here, and that they will soon wake up to the fact that they might sell more of the stuff if people could be persuaded to chuck it away.

So I’ll end with another patronising thought: if it looks and smells edible, it probably is. Go on, use your common sense. Taste it before you waste it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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