New figures published last week indicate that about 50 per cent of the food we produce is thrown away without being eaten. There’s some righteous anger at this figure and some of the facts that stand around it. By far the highest portion of the waste is attributed to produce left unharvested because it doesn’t meet our ludicrous standards of vegetal beauty, or bought in bulk deals and thrown away by customers with eyes bigger than their crisper drawer. A small portion is down to those who still believe in sell-by dates rather than their own nose.
I personally find waste difficult. Rosie Sykes, the chef at my Cambridge café, Fitzbillies, is uncompromising. Her purchasing is a precision strike, the larders and shelves are packed like the stores of an Arctic expedition – no superfluous gramme is tolerated lest it bring down the entire enterprise. Trimmings are turned into stocks of sublime richness. Our daily food waste would fill a small bucket and yet still she rants at length on the appalling stupidity of intransigent authorities who no longer allow leftovers to be fed to pigs.
It’s no easier at home. My partner is a well-brought up and fully indoctrinated Scot who regards waste of any food as close to sin. For a brief period we enjoyed a “veg box” like normal families but I began to notice a brittle tension in the domestic ménage as we approached each Friday – either we’d have to eat kohlrabi soup for three consecutive meals or there was a chance that we’d have to throw away a root uneaten. The box was quietly cancelled and harmony restored but Christmas, as you can readily imagine, is still a time of friction.
In addition to the turkey one would, of course, like a ham … a couple of lobes of foie as a treat for the grown-ups … English cheese … and so the larder fills. As the last few windows on the advent calendar were hastily torn open, I realised how culturally ill-equipped we are for feasting.
Because we’re Brits we loathe waste and strive to avoid oversupply at the table. In part we share the very noble attitude of our Protestant and northern European neighbours: waste, when others are wanting, should be an affront to any benign deity. Partly waste is just in some odd way impolite. I recently sat at a restaurant table with several families, who debated for a clear 10 minutes precisely how few dishes they could select to avoid the awful fate of “over-ordering” … a grievous solecism common to foreigners and arrivistes.
I even take sneaking pride in this. Our moderation is surely laudable. We are a modest, prudent people, not given to ostentatious display. We’d be appalled if anyone found our consumption conspicuous.
Yet most other cultures understand the importance of the groaning board. Maybe it isn’t written into our religion that unqualified hospitality is a moral duty, maybe we don’t feel the need to routinely over-cater to compensate for a couple of millennia of persecution, maybe we don’t overload the table to celebrate our deliverance to the New World ... but we should never forget that the point of a big family meal is to mark the occasion with plenty. To display generosity, hospitality and, hell, let’s say it, to celebrate through pleasure.
Even Charles Dickens, one of the most morally rigorous of our social commentators, a man who turned an appreciation of the gulf between have and have not into a literary genre, saw nothing wrong in celebrating life whenever we could, with an uncontrolled, button-popping, plate-licking, bone-chucking, wasteful blowout. (This is at least the conclusion he directs Ebenezer Scrooge towards in A Christmas Carol.)
Wasting half our food is truly appalling on any ethical, moral, economic or practical level – but before we scourge ourselves with whips, let’s pause for a second and think. Is the waste implicit in a properly celebratory family meal on the same scale? Don’t we need a few overladen plates, quietly scraped into the compost, to properly mark those precious occasions when we lighten up enough to be convivial?
I don’t enjoy wasting food by any means yet it’s vital that we understand that, occasionally, waste has its place. We can make all the jokes we like about leftovers but a portion-controlled Christmas dinner doesn’t say “the warmth of the family” to me. It doesn’t say hospitality; it says hospital, or possibly prison.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer