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.

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    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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EWF blog post ~ Make it a strong one: coffee and the brain

I’m a bit behind the eight ball with posting this here — my latest post on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog was published more than a week ago. But here it is!

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I’m afraid I’m going to pick on coffee. I’m sorry. I know, I know, coffee is a writer’s friend. It’s my friend too, often, but I have an ongoing debate with myself about coffee. Most of the time I love it, but often it does strange things to my head, and occasionally I’m repulsed by it. That I could have such complex feelings about a drink fascinates me.

I probably spend far too much time thinking more generally about what I eat and drink. Which I suppose isn’t surprising, given that I currently get paid to write about food a few days a week, and am working on a larger writing project about food and eating. But really I blame my fast metabolism for the amount of time I spend mulling over what I put in my mouth — and indeed it’s probably why I do the work I do. For much of my life, I’ve been the type of person who finishes a big breakfast and is immediately thinking about what I’ll have for morning tea when I’m hungry again in two hours.

Many people don’t believe me when I tell them I eat a lot. I watch them eye my slender frame and raise a skeptical eyebrow. They think I’m joking about second (and sometimes third) breakfast. But hunger for me comes quickly and frequently, and can bring with it dizzy spells along with the kind of raging anger I wrote about in my post on running.

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You can read the rest of the post here.

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.

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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.

House and garden

Yesterday we signed the lease for a little cottage-style house in Melbourne’s Brunswick, and my mind has immediately gone mad, thinking about what I can do with the courtyard garden. So many plans.

The friends my housemate and I are staying with have chooks, and they’re so lovely that I’d dearly love to take them with me (plus, think of the eggs!). They’re so inquisitive. I crouched down in the grass to take this photo, and they all came over immediately, thinking I had food, and then eyed me curiously when they realised that I didn’t.

Unfortunately, my courtyard garden will not accommodate chooks — there’s no grass for them, it’d be cruel. So I’m adding chooks to my list of things to have when I’m a Proper Grown Up and live on a bit of land somewhere.

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.

Transition and Tomato Sauce

On the weekend, I went to a barbeque picnic in Pyrmont, down by the water. I used to work in Pyrmont, so being back there, like so many other things at the moment, was a weird little nostalgia trip. That I’d had very little sleep the night before (and perhaps over-imbibed) probably did very little to keep me feeling in any way down to earth. I was in a very vague mood. Not-quite-managing-to-finish-sentences vague.

We put sausages on the barbeque, and sat in the sun to eat them. I drenched mine in tomato sauce, as is my wont. And ever since then I’ve been craving tomato sauce. In fact, as I write this, there’s a tomato sauce bottle sitting next to me because I had it on my lunch. I’m trying to work out how to also have it with dinner.

While I love tomato sauce — it’s one of those tastes of childhood for me — I don’t have it or want to have it very often. That I should be craving it now is strange. I mean, on one level it makes sense. I have two weeks left of work in Sydney and then a great big, exciting, terrifying unknown to look forward to in Melbourne. It does stand to reason that I would be craving something that is familiar (and sugary). But really? Tomato sauce? Usually chocolate is my comfort food. Anyone who knows me well knows I’m an absolute chocolate fiend. That chocolate should be replaced by tomato sauce is definitely unusual.

The closer the Big Move gets, the stranger I feel. The New Lightness is becoming more like The New Oddness. Every morning I wake and spend a few minutes trying to remember what day it is, and where I am, exactly. It surprises me each time I turn up to teach a class and students arrive, as if I think maybe I’ve got the day wrong. Everything familiar seems slightly off-kilter, or weirdly out of context.

This will be my third interstate move in the nine years since I left home (the fifth, if you include the to-and-from Canberra in between Melbourne and Sydney last time). But each of those times I’ve made the decision to go, and then left within a month or so. This time I’ve had quite a long time leading up to the move. I hope that all this pre-move oddness is going to mean less of the post-move oddness I’ve come across previously.

For now, I’m trying just to go with it. It’s not entirely unpleasant, and it’s certainly interesting to watch. But it’s very weird.