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.
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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: 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.

Settling in

Last week was an odd one. A few weeks ago, I drafted a post about how I’d realised that rhythm was really important to me—my work hours are different every day with teaching, and often from week to week with writing, so it’s almost impossible to find something as structured as a routine. The word rhythm seems far more appropriate.

Moving house, of course, changes that rhythm in small ways and in larger ways. The route I take to get to all my classes is completely different, and often means I need to leave the house at a different time. The places I often found myself writing—whether at home or out and about—are now much further away. It’s both an exciting and disconcerting experience to have to find a new rhythm to settle into.

I realised a couple of days ago that one of the ways I settle into new places these days is to cook. For me, the kitchen is such an important part of how a house functions. Getting to know a new kitchen by cooking in it is a wonderfully settling activity for me.

I spent last week cooking familiar things in the so far unfamiliar kitchen, and it really helped me settle into the idea that this place is home. On Saturday morning my new housemate and I went to the Eveleigh Farmers’ Market and bought some produce to add to the box of home-grown stuff her parents (who stayed with us a few nights last week) brought us from their property, and in the afternoon I attempted to cook a few new things. Somehow, cooking something new in a new place fits with the idea of a new rhythm. There’s something in the potential for this particular new dish to become an old faithful, like the new routes to work will eventually become so familiar.

The weekend’s new dish was baked beans in the slow cooker my Mum gave me. For me (and, incidentally, for my new housemate), baked beans are one of those comfort foods—along with things like porridge, they’re the food I’ll eat when I can’t be bothered cooking, and I need something familiar, tasty and warm. So the combination of familiarity with the new experience of making them from scratch (rather than opening a can) seems an appropriate meeting of experiences.

They turned out pretty well, for a first try. We had them with toast and an egg for dinner last night. Exactly the kind of comfort we both needed after what proved a very busy week.

(Unfortunately, in my haste to eat the beans, I forgot to take a picture of the finished product. Next time.)

Recipe
(The original recipe I found here, and added a few things — next time I plan to also add some kind of herb, possibly rosemary, right before serving.)

200g cannellini beans (dry weight)
1 large tin chopped tomatoes
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 tbsp dark muscovado sugar
1 tsp vegetable stock powder
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp mustard powder
1/2 tsp marmite/promite/vegemite
1 good slug of Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp chilli powder or flakes
salt and pepper

Method
Soak the beans overnight.
Boil them for 10 minutes before using.
Add all the ingredients to the slow-cooker. Stir and mix through thoroughly.
Set the slow-cooker to low.
Cook for at least 6 hours (I put too much water in, so I ended up having to cook mine for about 12 hours).
Serves 2 as supper.
Serves 4 as part of a cooked breakfast.

Lucky

Every now and then I realise just how lucky I am to be enjoying my days as much as I do. I’ll be honest: I’m poorer than I’ve ever been. But I can’t really complain because the work I’m doing is something I enjoy, and, more than that, I feel like it means something.

On top of that, because I do most of my work in the mornings and evenings, my days are slow, and usually see me pottering about the house cooking, writing, reading, researching.

Don’t get me wrong; I have regular moments of overwhelming fear or upset, when I wonder what on earth I’ve done (or how I’ll next pay rent). But when I find myself sitting down to a piece of toast and a cup of tea at four o’clock in the afternoon, or cooking myself a warm lunch, I can’t help but feel privileged to be able to live this way.

Today was one of those days. I had a productive day: I did a few loads of washing, I got my groceries done, I cleaned the bathroom, I cooked a couple of meals, I chatted to my brother on the phone for a couple of hours about life and thinking, and I did some yoga. Then it was dinner time. And now I’m doing some research for a class I’m teaching. My idea of a perfect Monday, really.

Follow your dreams, people. The obstacles along the way are well worth the struggle.