Tuesday 22 October 2013

A 1950s childhood: starving Africans versus Captain Manners

Like every child of the 1950s, I simply loathe waste.

The Hann household is enlivened by regular inquisitions into why we cannot make greater efforts to close windows and doors, turn down thermostats and pull on more woolly jumpers and socks.

As for chucking out food, it is a dagger to my heart every time a black banana or a mouldy crust of bread heads into the bin.

So I was naturally depressed by yesterday’s revelation from Tesco that it has managed to waste nearly 30,000 tonnes of food in the first six months of this year – and that its customers have chucked away yet more.

Given the scale of the problem, Tesco’s bright idea of ending multi-buy promotions on large bags of salad sounds like a drop in the proverbial ocean.

For the customer one vital key to avoiding waste, in my experience, is never to go shopping – either in a store or online – when one is actually hungry. Things I fancy but am never going to get around to eating always seem to creep into my basket when I am feeling peckish (which is, to be fair, most of the time).

Leaving the children at home also helps, so long as they don’t ransack the fridge and / or burn the house down while you are out.

Then there is adopting a common sense approach to “use by” dates, and only binning stuff when it has actually gone off rather than when the packet tells you to. If God had intended us to rely on “best before” advice, he wouldn’t have equipped us with noses as well as eyes.

(Having said that, I face an ongoing uphill struggle to convince Mrs Hann that certain products such as sugar, honey and golden syrup do not carry “use by” dates for the apparently incredible reason that they never go off.)

Then there is the potential to make intelligent use of the freezer – and, no, this column isn’t an incompetently concealed advertisement for my clients at Iceland.

I lived for more than 20 years next door to a couple who adopted “The Good Life” long before anyone thought to make it into a TV series, and their entire lifestyle depended on the complex of chest freezers that accommodated their seasonal hauls of home-reared meat, local game, and fruit and vegetables from their garden.

Yes, the best-tasting produce is the stuff that you grow yourself and eat fresh out of the ground. But if you can’t manage that, quick-frozen vegetables are highly likely to contain more vitamins and other nutrients than “fresh” food that has been in the supermarket supply chain for days (and probably in the salad drawer of your fridge for even longer).

The middle class intelligentsia love to rubbish convenience food in general, and frozen convenience food in particular, but the clue to its appeal is in the name: it’s convenient.

And despite the complaints of the British Heart Foundation about increasing portion sizes fuelling the current obesity epidemic, I for one have found that my only successful diets were those based around a carefully controlled intake of calorie-counted ready meals.

Starting to cook from scratch, with the almost inevitable temptation of “seconds”, is for me the high road to disaster.

It will not have escaped the attention of anyone who watched the BBC2 documentary on Iceland last night that I am currently immensely fat.

N.B. The banana is an ironic tribute to David Miliband, NOT a gaffe. Though the spelling of "it's" (not by me) clearly is.

This is not a reflection on frozen food but on my own lack of self-control and one other legacy of my 1950s upbringing.

Faced with a straight choice between clearing my plate and tipping an unwanted surplus into the bin, I’m always going to go for forking it down. To do otherwise, my mother assured me, was to administer a kick in the teeth to the starving children of Africa.

I never did understand why.

I have also met exact contemporaries whose parents dispensed the directly contrary advice that you should “always leave something for Captain Manners”.

But I suspect that Captain Manners moved in more exalted social circles than ours around the Four Lane Ends. What’s more, I bet the cad never once pulled on an extra pullover or sorted out his newspapers for recycling.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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