Making, cooking, food and wasting

IMG_0504.JPGWhen my brother and I were little, we used to sit in the dirt under the crab apple tree that grew beside the back door of our home and pile handfuls of dirt and handfuls of fallen crab apples into buckets. We’d fill the buckets with water, and attempt to make soup.

I don’t remember if we ever intended to eat the soup, but I do remember various strategies we employed to try to soften the crab apples so they might be edible. The crab apples were small — more like red berries really — and rock hard. Even trying to grind them between two flat rocks didn’t break them down. We tried soaking them in water for a short while before pounding them with rocks, we tried dropping them from the balcony. I’m not sure what motivated such a strong desire for softened crab apples. Perhaps we were thinking about chewing them, or perhaps we just wanted the texture of the crab apples to match the texture of the mud.

I’ve tried for some time to think of an anecdote that might illustrate how I came to be fascinated with making things. But the truth is that I don’t really remember where or when it started — although this story about the crab apples, and its placement early on the timeline of my life might suggest that the desire to make might be something I was born with or something I was taught from a very young age. And indeed both my parents are makers, and their parents before them. Things made from wood and stone, wool and cotton. Things made from food materials, destined for lunch boxes or the dinner table.

Anthropologist Tim Ingold writes about making as being similar to walking (2010). He suggests that both making and walking are a form of ‘wayfaring’ — that is, they are a way of knowing or coming to know, of making one’s way through the world. He describes a way of making that considers that the materials with which a person makes things are not inert, that skilled practice “is not a question of imposing preconceived forms on inert matter, but of intervening in the fields of force and currents of material wherein forms are generated” (pg 92, 2010). He suggests that to make is to “find the grain of the world’s becoming and to follow its course while bending it to [an] evolving purpose” (pg 92, 2010).

When I first began trying to make things using food scraps as materials, it became obvious to me very quickly that the materials I was using were not inert and that I would need to be willing to evolve my ideas about what I was making and how in order to avoid throwing out vast quantities of failed attempts. This was, after all, part of the reason I was attempting to make things from food scraps in the first place: I was trying to find value in these things that were usually considered waste.

Of the materials I use, I have been experimenting with lemon rinds the longest. My household goes through a lot of lemons, and I’d been taught somewhere along the line to keep them out of the compost for fear of upsetting the critters who made it their home. I also kept turning up yet-to-break-down lemon rinds in compost I was trying to use on the garden, and it was irritating to have to pick them out. The rinds that were kept out of the compost were going in the rubbish bin. This bothered me—mainly because I didn’t believe this could be the only answer. Lemon rinds are an organic material, I thought, surely there was something else I could do with them.

I tried making marmalade first (and in finding out how to do so, came across this lovely essay about marmalade making). It was easy and delicious, but I realised very quickly that I’d need to make an awful lot of marmalade to deal with the volume of material the household produced. So I tried making a lemon vinegar for cleaning. Again, it was very easy, and it was a brilliant all-purpose cleaner — perhaps the best I’ve ever used — but there’s only so much of it that a household needs.

I read that lemon oil was good for cosmetic purposes, and had a brightening effect on the skin and hair. I’d been making my own hair washes and skin moisturisers for some time, so I began trying to incorporate the lemon rind. At first, I made the mistake of trying to use it fresh, and discovered that there is still quite enough flesh in the rind of a lemon to go mouldy and send an entire batch of face cream that way too. It wasn’t the appearance of visible mould that made me realise my batch was going off — the smell changed. It wasn’t awful, but there was something not quite right about it. And when I continued to stubbornly use it on my face, not wanting to waste the cream and the time and effort I’d put into making it, my skin went blotchy and itchy. Eventually, reluctantly, I put the whiffy face cream aside and started again.

A woman at my work told me about how women in India (where she was from) use lemon oil for their skin and hair, and about how they dry the rinds out so they can keep them for longer. She described rows and rows of lemon and other citrus rinds lined up on people’s roofs on hot days, and the vague citrusy scent that hung in the air.

When I tried it at home, it was spring. One day hot and sunny; the next, rain. The lemon rinds went mouldy again, but at least this time it happened before I’d put them in a face cream.

I began a dance with the oven. Every time I was at home for a stretch of several hours, I’d put a tray of lemon rinds into a very low oven. I call this a dance because one of the other uses for citrus rinds is as a fire starter, due to the oil in citrus being highly flammable. I did, thankfully, managed to avoid lighting my oven on fire, but the drying results were inconsistent, and required more of my attention than I really wanted to give.

Then I was gifted a dehydrator. The drying was much slower, much more consistent, and required far less of my attention. And slowly I accumulated jars of citrus (mostly lemon) rind for later use in making other things.

Describing this process of learning how to use lemon rinds rather than throw them out perhaps sounds tiresome and lengthy on paper. At times, I guess it was, but for the most part, this experimentation was fascinating. All the stops and starts and changes of direction have helped me come to know an awful lot more about lemons and lemon rinds, about what they might be useful for, but also about myself. Playing with lemon rinds has taught me how much I enjoy the smell of citrus, that my hair and skin do indeed get brighter when I use lemon oil. It’s taught me to trust my sense of smell and to notice how my skin reacts to the things I make. It has also taught me about the rhythms I follow in my daily life, and for what and how much I am willing to change them — it has shown me how much of what I do is habit, and given me an opportunity to look at those habits with a new perspective.

It has also changed the way I look at and feel about these materials, at the idea that they’re commonly dismissed and thrown away, and at the infrastructure and culture that makes it difficult for people to waste less than they do. There are, of course, the environmental impacts of continuing habits where food scraps and other food are wasted, and those are by no means insignificant, but they are not the main focus of my research. As well as the environmental downside to these food waste habits, there is this idea of Ingold’s that making is a way of knowing and learning, of coming to understand something about the world and our relationship to it. It saddens me a great deal to think that sending food waste to landfill might both contribute significantly to global warming and represent a missed opportunity for making — and for learning through making.

This is perhaps what most makes me feel it is a shame that we have a tendency to think about ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas, 1980) as dirt or waste. In her seminal book ‘Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo’, anthropologist Mary Douglas examines the ways in which cultures come to categorise things as ‘unclean’ (and, I would argue, as ‘waste’), often because they do not neatly or easily fit into another category. “As we know it,” Douglas writes, “dirt is essentially disorder” (pg 2, 1980) She argues that we shun dirt (or waste) because it “offends against order” (pg 2, 1980). Eliminating dirt or waste is not a negative action, Douglas says, “but a positive effort to organise the environment” (pg 2, 1980). It is an attempt to make our environment conform to an idea we have of it, “to impose system on an inherently untidy experience” (pg 4, 1980).

Douglas’ book analyses cultures across time, finding this systematic categorisation at work (although in different ways) in both ancient and modern cultures, so my argument is certainly not that older cultures managed this objectively better. Instead, my exploration of food waste is an attempt to challenge the boundaries of some of these categories in our own culture, to suggest that there might be something to be learned from looking at, rather than eliminating, what we might refer to as ‘food waste’. It is to suggest that the waste is not so much the materials themselves, but in the labelling of the materials as dirt or waste, and the (failed, as it turns out) attempt at eliminating them. It is to suggest that looking at what we label ‘waste’ might have something to teach us, good or bad, about how we habitually organise our world in other ways.

I think of these experiments of mine with food waste as a form of play. A game that has extended out over years, and will no doubt continue to be played. What I am doing with these food scraps is not so different to what my brother and I did with mud and fallen fruit and pieces of stone. He and I were playing with materials of the world, perhaps imitating the dinner-making process our parents undertook in the kitchen, but we were also engaging with the world in a way that taught us about texture, about how different materials didn’t always behave the same way as one another when they were, say, mixed with water or pounded with rocks. We were probably finding out about ourselves and about one another. We were learning that that the non-human world was not something inherently or only dangerous, even when we were actually playing with dirt; that being in the world can mean engaging with it as a wayfarer, coming to know it through trial and error, rather than applying preconceived categorisations. We were exploring the world. We were making our way, untidily, probably covered in dirt, through it.

~

    Douglas, M. (1980). Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. Binghamton, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited.
    Ingold, T. (2010). The textility of making. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 91–102.

Cycles

The compost bucket is heavy in my arms. It is so full that the lid won’t stay on properly and through the gaps wafts a smell that means I can’t possibly ignore the fact that what I eat is something that was once alive: the smell of rotting, mould and decay. Of something that was once alive but is no longer. I walk quickly, and the liquid in the bucket sloshes around. I make a mental note to be aware of this when I empty the bucket into the bigger outside bin in a moment, lest there be any stinky splashing. 

The compost bin lives about halfway down our backyard, near the shed. To get there, I leave the house by the deck doors, peer around the side of the bucket to make sure I don’t trip down the stairs, and then make my way across the patchy grass, hoping there are no bindis popping up yet.

As smelly as the kitchen compost bucket is, it is the outside bin I find most confronting. It doesn’t smell, but it has bugs. Thousands of them. Once or twice I’ve also found mice out here. 

When I reach the bin, I put the bucket down and squint as I open the bin’s lid. The insects rush out at my face in a cloud, heading for my nostrils and squinting eyes. They take a few moments to clear, and I shake them away from my face. I empty the bucket, holding it firmly while I tap the bottom to dislodge the slimey bits of pumpkin from the bottom of its insides, trying to avoid dropping the bucket into the dark cavern of the bin. The pumpkin goop is thick and squelchy sounding and reluctant to leave the bucket, stretching and sliding around the bottom of the bucket instead of falling. But it does eventually fall and lands somewhere in the large bin with a satisfying muffled thud.

IMG_0434.JPGWhen the bucket is empty, I put the lid back on and skip back to the house, pleased to have completed the smelly chore. 

I am perhaps eight or nine in this memory. But it could also be cobbled together from any evening in my childhood. Empyting the compost bucket into the outside bin was a regular household chore throughout my entire childhood. 

There was a point sometime last year that I realised I was a bit obsessed with organic waste — and that maybe I always had been. The empyting of the kitchen compost bin into the outside bin, and all the sensory grossness of the task, looms large in my childhood memories.

IMG_0435.JPGI’m not sure now whether these experiences were unpleasant for me as a child, but I tend now to think of them as confronting but worthwhile. Lessons of a very visceral kind in how life works. Certainly they’re not unpleasant memories — just vivid. And they have not in any way made me want to avoid food scraps and food waste.

As an adult, I’ve initiated and emptied compost buckets on behalf of whole sharehouses, and I’ve acquired and become bizarrely fond of thousands of composting worms.* I’m not disgusted easily (except, perhaps, by bugs, but then maybe that makes sense too, given these memories) and my hands have touched and held much food that is very far from being at its best.

And now I find myself undertaking a major research project on food waste that will see me making things from food scraps (albeit before they’re too stinky or slimey) and making a radio feature about it. 

IMG_0436.JPGIt occurs to me know that when I started this blog years ago, I called it ‘avocado and lemon’ because those were two foods that I have always loved to eat together, and now two of the food scraps I’ll be making things from will be lemon and avocado detritus (the third food item is spent coffee grounds). It occurs to me too that the reason that I chose those particular food items is that they’re problematic in large amounts in the compost.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how life seems to move in circles?

*I called all the worms Barry, in case you were wondering. Known collectively as The Barries. I’m not sure why. Barry just seemed like a good name for such an immensely helpful critter.

Hearing other people’s stories

Clear blue skyI am sitting at a tram stop on a sunny Sunday morning, reading a book, when he approaches me.

Excuse me, he says, which tram do I take to get to Bridge Road?

From here, I tell him, you can catch the number 75 tram. I’m catching that tram too.

He sits near to me on the cold metal seat and tells me he’s going to a church on Bridge Road, because his usual church is closed today. He is a thin man, probably in his forties. His face has softened around various piercings—two in his eyebrows, one in his lip. His lips are large and soft and seem occasionally to get in the way of his speech. His eyes are blue and clear.

He hasn’t been home since last night, he says. I smile. But what he says next surprises me. He hasn’t been home because last night he found his housemate dead and now he can’t face the house.

His face falters as he tells me this.

They tried to make me go home, he says, but I couldn’t. Could you?

No, I say. And I’m really sorry to hear that’s happened. I don’t know who he means by ‘they’ but I don’t ask.

He is on his way to the church on Bridge Road because a friend of his is the minister there, and he’s hoping she’ll be able to offer him some support.

The tram comes and we both get on. He tells me about his night, about how various Melbourne hospitals refused to help him, about how his Dad refused to let him stay, even knowing what happened. He tells me about his troubles with depression and suicidal thoughts. That the only person he knows who offered him a place to sleep is someone he doesn’t trust.

The book I was reading when he interrupted me at the tram stop was Hugh Mackay’s ‘The Good Life’, about how to lead a life that is morally good. My life, of course, like everyone’s, is full of moments where I fail at this, where I could be better. This man, I am absolutely sure, comes across many people in his day-to-day life who fail at being good in the moments they are interacting with him. I can see it in his face. He probably fails at this too. Years ago a friend told me that she thought I attracted more than my fair share of crazies, and certainly my interaction with this man is not a particularly unusual occurrence in my life. But I wonder whether it’s less that people with issues are attracted to me and more that, for better or worse, I find it difficult to turn away in that first moment of eye contact.

Suddenly it is my stop. I wish him good luck, say that I hope his friend can help him. He tells me he hopes I have a good day. I wonder to myself how his life will play out from here, whether he will get the help he needs. I wonder what series of events in his life lead him to here, telling a complete stranger on a tram the story of an awful night in his life. I step out into the sunshine, but the image of the clear blue eyes in his troubled face stays with me.

Sustainable Table and Meat Free Week

There’s been a bit of radio silence from me here lately. I’ve started a new job, writing for this website, and it’s taking up a lot of my time (four full days, to be precise). I’m also teaching some yoga classes and working on some freelance projects.

My first two weeks at work were a bit of a blur, as I tried to get used to a new routine (working any kind of regular hours is very different to the all-over-the-place hours I’ve kept for the last few years teaching yoga full time!), but I finally feel like I’m settling into it a little bit.

Anyway. To get to my point. Because I’m writing for a food news website, I come across all sorts of food-related news every day. The website has a particular focus (as it should), which means that not all of what comes across my desk is necessarily appropriate for that publication. But I feel like some of it is relevant to my freelance work, and to what I sometimes write about here, so I’m going to start posting some of that stuff here.

Starting now.

Just today I got an email from Sustainable Table, who, among other things, produce very beautiful cookbooks.

From their website:

Sustainable Table uses food as an entrée to explore sustainability issues. With up to 60% of our eco-footprint embodied in the food that we buy there is no better place to start.

They’re getting behind Meat Free Week, which will run next week, 18-24 March, by putting out a free meat free cookbook.

I’ll point out now that this post is not in any way sponsored by Sustainable Table (or any other organisation), I just like what they do and think this is a worthwhile venture.

I should also point out that I’m mostly vegetarian, but that my promoting this is in no way a push for other people to make that particular dietary choice forever. However, as Sustainable Table quite rightly point out, there’s a lot of research that suggests that we all need to eat less meat for a whole host of reasons, and I think this kind of awareness-raising week is a good way to experiment a little with what we put in our mouths.

“We need to think about [how much meat we eat] because as a nation we’re consuming way too much,” say Sustainable Table. “Even the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare agrees – the latest Australian Dietary Guidelines stress that we need to halve our meat consumption immediately. The amount of meat we are eating annually – 120kg per person or 190,000 tonnes nationally – is putting pressure on our environment and our farmers. Carbon, nitrogen and methane emissions, water use and ethically-questionable intensive farming practices result.”

The idea of eating less meat (let alone no meat) can be a bit overwhelming. I know it was for me when I first went vego many years ago. The idea behind the free recipe book is to take some of the guesswork out of meat-free eating. The book is designed to cover all meals for a week, which I reckon is rather useful — especially if meat-free eating is a new thing for you.

You can get all the information about Meat Free Week and download your FREE copy of the recipe booklet by clicking the image below:

A Meat Free Week booklet

Sustainable Table are also running a competition during the week. Share your photos of the meat free recipes you cook from our booklet and be in with a chance to win a copy of their book The Sustainable Table, valued at $40. (I got a copy of this book for my birthday last year, and it’s beautiful.)

More information about the competition is can be found here.

Meat Free Week has been organised by animal rights advocacy group, Voiceless.

~

And don’t worry, I’ll still be writing my usual rambling posts as often as I can.

Food reading: The People’s Food Plan

I’ve spent many hours over the last year reading food plans from different countries, trying to get a sense of how we feed ourselves, and the problems with how we do that. Earlier in the year, the Australian government put out a green paper to inform a national food plan. I’m still working through that report in detail (it’s some 200 pages long), but there’s already been quite a response to it elsewhere (here, here and here), and the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance has put together a discussion paper for a People’s Food Plan as an alternative.

The language difference between the two papers is stark. The government report, as is to be expected, I suppose, is rather dry reading. The facts are interesting, but the language is business language — and much of the criticism of this report has suggested that it’s too business focused. There’s quite a lot in the report that isn’t related to business, but I do agree that its overall focus is problematic. Business, and the economy, are only part of what’s affected by food. The People’s Food Plan discussion paper uses more emotive language, which might be criticised by business folk, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to talk that way about food. Most of us have an emotional relationship with food, in one way or another — it’s often how we socialise, and our food choices are often highly emotion, even if we’re not always aware of it.

A week or so ago, I went to the first of a series of events put on by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestries (DAFF), which they’re calling AgTalks. The session I went to was discussion around the topic “Australians don’t care where their food comes from, as long as it’s cheap and looks good.” The event was chaired by Cameron Wilson, from ABC Radio National’s Bush Telegraph program (and an edited version of the event was broadcast on that show — you can listen to the podcast here), and on the panel were representatives from across the food industry. Interestingly, the panel did not include any farmers, or at least no farmers who didn’t have a vested interest in an industry organisation. Wilson had a number of questions for the panel to consider, but he also threw to the audience and to Twitter (#agtalks) for questions.

Something that bothered me about some of the questions, and about some of the responses from the panel, was the underlying assumption that there is an easy or simple answer to any of the problems that run deep in our food system. I should note that not everyone seemed to be working on this assumption, but it was something that came up frequently. The idea that ‘everyone should just shop at farmers’ markets’ (and I’m definitely paraphrasing here — those exact words were not actually uttered) really irks me. Not everyone has access to farmers’ markets (or organic food, or even fresh food), be that because they can’t afford it, or because it actually just isn’t available anywhere near them. To offer that as a solution just shuts down discussion — very important discussion. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for farmers’ markets, all for organic and sustainably-grown food, and I certainly think the cost of that kind of food is a more accurate indication of what it actually costs to produce good food. I just think reality of supply is a little more complicated. Supply isn’t just about quantity. It’s also about distribution and access. And the more research I do into food in Australia, the more I come to see that we really must look at food as an inherently social problem, as well as seeing it as an economic and environmental problem.

Which brings me back to a quote from The People’s Food Plan discussion draft: “Being essential to life, food systems must be life-sustaining and life-enhancing.” I would add that it needs to be that for all people. I’ll be watching the development of this plan with great interest, hoping that the social issues that surround access to food are considered carefully and thoughtfully.

Thinking About Waste

One of the topic areas I’m researching and writing about at the moment is waste: what it is, what it means, what affect it has on us and the world around us, and what it says about how we relate to the world around us.

I’ve been reading the Milkwood Permaculture blog for several years now, on and off. Recently I worked my way through a big backlog of posts (I’m not exactly consistent in my reading habits) and came across this fantastic video, where Milkwood‘s Nick Ritar discusses the problems with how we deal with our own biological waste.

His point that much of the obstacle is in our own minds is so true. The house I grew up in was in the middle of an acre of land, and we weren’t connected to the town sewerage. We had a sewerage tank instead, and at some point Mum and Dad connected a hose and sprinkler to it, so when the tank was full, it would pump the treated effluent onto the grass or gardens. Perhaps naturally, we called it the Poo Sprinkler, and usually ganged up on Dad when it needed to be moved around the yard (sorry Dad). So it’s probable that my own level of disgust at these things is a little lower than it might be for most, but I still found myself having to get beyond some revulsion while watching Ritar’s talk.

Obviously, the revulsion or disgust is not an entirely unhelpful reaction — our waste mostly needs to be treated in some way before it’s safe to use. But, as this talk very rightly points out, if that revulsion leads to us just wanting to get the stuff as far away from us as possible, it’s not really very helpful at all in the long run. Not recognising ourselves and our waste as part of some larger system is part of why we’re facing the localised environmental and broader climate issues that we are.

Ritar, of course, makes a much more compelling argument than I do. The video is definitely worth watching.

Food reading: food & feeling rushed

“Feeling rushed is… an important component of our economy; it causes people to buy more, pay, try more things and more means to compensate for the stress, or at least to alleviate the anxiety. It also makes us work harder and longer — and therefore leave ourselves less time… We eat out or buy ready-prepared food to eat at home in order to save time, but also — and more insidiously — because we feel we have no time to do otherwise. Many of us never really learn to cook, and therefore cooking remains not only time-consuming but unrewarding.” (Margaret Visser in Huntley, page 175)

I came across this quote from Margaret Visser in Rebecca Huntley’s book Eating Between the Lines: food & equality in Australia.

I’ve also recently been reading Charlotte Wood’s Love & Hunger, and the contrast between this general observation of society and Wood’s own experiences with cooking is stark.

“At the same time as I am freed from the past & the future [when cooking]… in some subtle but definite way I am also connected, at least once in every mealtime, to a cycle of life greater and more permanent than my own.” (Love & Hunger, page 6)

For Wood, not only is cooking a way of slowing down that rushed feeling, but it’s a way of being aware of the life of the rest of the world. My own experience of cooking—and especially of cooking food that I’ve grown myself—is similar. Feeling disconnected, I think, is a few steps down the path towards feeling isolated. It saddens me to think that some people don’t have that sense of connection with other living things, at least some of the time, when they cook.

I’m aware of how namby-pamby that might sound in writing. But while a sense of separate self is important for human wellbeing, so is a sense of belonging somewhere. Food, surely, is one of the simplest ways of seeing that we belong somewhere—that we exist within a web of complicated relationships (in nature or otherwise).

The contrast between these two books, especially read in succession, the way that I have read them, really highlights the experiences people have of feeling so disconnected on such a basic level. I’m also making my way slowly through the government’s green paper for the development of a National Food Plan, and comparing it to similar approaches in the UK and Canada. Unfortunately, it’s mainly making me nervous.

On a positive note though, in response to the green paper, there are moves to make a People’s Food Plan, which hopefully will bring social and environmental concerns to the fore—or at least put them on equal terms with economic concerns. It’ll be interesting to see what shape the plan takes.