Vienna, 8 January 2017
Back in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) came out with a report in which it said that one-third of all food grown on farms around the world goes to waste. One-third! When you think that there are still millions of people who go to bed hungry every night, that is a truly shocking statistic. And, mark you, it is an average. We in the richer countries waste about 100 kg of food per person per year, most of that perfectly good food which for one silly reason or another gets thrown away somewhere between the supermarkets and our table. This is ten times – ten times! – the amount of food wasted per person in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/South-East Asia, and there most of the wastage happens between the farm and the market because of poor post-harvest practices: once food is on the table it is not wasted.
Ever since that report came out, I have been haunted by the need not to waste food. I always was careful, fruit, I suppose, of parents who made sure that we ate everything on our plate, but now I am extreme. Everything on my plate, bar pips, stones, bones, and peels, gets eaten.
Everything. Even those silly garnishes they put on your plate in restaurants to make it look pretty.
In this post-festive season, when celebratory family dinners are the norm, when poor unfortunate avians of various types get consumed leaving behind piles of incompletely stripped bones, and when more food than is reasonable gets bought and languishes uneaten in the fridge, I am especially taken by a frenzy to recycle everything. My favourite recycling format is a sort of thick chunky soupy thingy.
So it was this year. I took one look at the bones of the chickens lying scattered on our plates and snapped into action. Out came the pot, in went the bones, split open to maximize marrow yield. In went the giblets. In went a carrot or two, a parsnip, a couple of onions, all left over from some side servings planned for the chicken. But I didn’t stop there, no sirree! In went the can of baked beans which my daughter had planned to take with her but forgot (I will never, ever voluntarily eat baked beans as a main dish). In went a small container-full of a barbecue-type sauce from a take-out meal hurriedly ordered when friends of our son arrived hungry and ready to eat. In went the stem and leaves of the broccoli and cauliflower heads that accompanied the chicken (dice the stem small and it’s perfectly edible). In went the scraggly-looking outer leaves of the Brussels sprouts, stripped off to make the sprouts look nicer. In went the rind of the Parmesan cheese, cut into bite-sized chunks (once softened, perfectly edible). In went the remains of the beaten eggs used to make breaded veal. In went pieces of the breaded veal which somehow got left over. In went the peels of tomatoes left over from making a tomato sauce. In went the dregs of several wine bottles. In went a few left-over caper berries as well as several spoonfuls of their salty, vinegary juice to give the soup a tangy taste. Make-up water was added, along with a bouillon cube or two. The back burner was turned on, the whole was left to simmer for several hours, et voilà!
I grant you that the result might not have looked three-stars, that one might be led to poke doubtfully at all those different bits and pieces bobbing around in the plate, asking what they were (my wife, God bless her, tends to do this with my recycled soups although she nobly follows me on these culinary experiments), but it was actually really most delicious, even if I say so myself.
The way I describe the ingredients going in one after the other might lead a reader to think they all went in together. But actually that’s not so. Once I start on one of these soups, they can endure for several days, eaten from and then replenished with newly generated cooking wastes or further discoveries in the further back reaches of the fridge. They will change physiognomy, colour, and taste over the several days of their life. In that sense, they belong to the noble culinary tradition of pot luck – not the modern sense of that term, where everyone brings a dish they have prepared to a communal dinner, but the old sense of the term, of having an unscheduled guest partaking in whatever might be cooking at that moment on the hob, as in this quote from Charles Dickens’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”:
“You had better take your Cayenne pepper here than outside; pray stop and dine.”
“You are very kind,” said Edwin, glancing about him as though attracted by the notion of a new and relishing sort of gipsy-party.
“Not at all,” said Mr. Grewgious; “YOU are very kind to join issue with a bachelor in chambers, and take pot-luck.”
I actually prefer the French term for pot luck: pot-bouille, or pot boil. This describes better what I’m doing: getting a nice big pot, throwing a bunch of stuff in it, and boiling it up with much judicious stirring. The French writer Émile Zola, thirty years Dickens’s junior, used the term pot-bouille in a figurative sense when it became the title to one of his books. In it, he described the goings-on in one of Paris’s then new apartment blocks, where various bourgeois families and their servants were thrown together and stewed in their own juices, as it were. The book was a stinging criticism of the French bourgeoisie and its hypocrisies, a feeling well caught in this cartoon from the period.
Note the flies expiring in the foul exhalations escaping from the pot. From the looks my wife sometimes gives me as I move into full gear on my recycled soup-making, she no doubt would agree with this sentiment. She looked particularly alarmed when in this latest round I wondered out loud if tea leaves could be added to one of my recycled soups. After all, according to a web-site I had just read, most of the nutrients in tea get left in the leaves, and as I recall for centuries the green tea which the Tibetans brought up from the Chinese lowlands was the only vegetable they consumed during the long winter months when they ate it as an ingredient in butter tea.
I think I’ll go easy on this one, to give her time to get used to the idea. I’ll not mention yet my plans to try recycling orange and mandarin peels into some edible dish. And I wonder what could be done with olive pips?
photos: mine, except:
Plate with garnish: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/garnishing-ideas/
Charles Dickens, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”: http://charlesdickenspage.com/illustrations-edwin_drood.html
Emile Zola “Pot Bouille”: http://www.collectiana.org/quand-ceard-collectionnait-zola-agnes-sandras-classiques-garnier-paris-2012.html
Butter tea: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butter_tea