Applying Mom’s Rules To A Food Wasting World

The BBC reports today on a study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers that estimates that between one-third and half of all the world’s food — as much as 2 billion tons — is thrown away. The primary reasons for the waste are poor storage, strict sell-by dates, people buying food in bulk, and picky consumers.  The report estimates, for example, that 30 percent of the vegetables grown in the United Kingdom aren’t harvested because their appearance isn’t quite up to snuff.

The amount of wasted food is infuriating, given the hunger found across the globe, but it’s also — in part, at least — an inevitable by-product of modern society.  We’ve moved far away from a world of families that ate the last withered carrots and turnips in the root cellar, knowing that they had harvested the vegetables themselves months ago and stored them in the same way their families had done for generations.  Now we eat food that is produced God knows where, God knows when, by God knows who.  If it looks a bit fishy, we’re not going to buy it, or eat it.  When you consume canned goods or frozen food, you’re obviously going to pay attention to the “use by” information — and anyone who pushes for expanding the “sell by” envelope will face pitchforks and torches the next time a mass botulism or other food-borne illness strikes.

But we can’s just thrown up our hands, either — and not just because we have to help people who are starving.  Food production requires lots of fresh water, which is in short supply.  We just can’t afford to devote huge amounts of water to growing vegetables that aren’t eaten.  (And we can’t afford to subsidize the growth of crops that aren’t eaten, either, but that’s an issue for another day.)

So, what to do if you are a red-blooded American?  How about listening to that inner Mom’s voice — you know, the one that told you to clean your plate and remember that there are starving people in Africa — and only buy what you can eat, and then eat it?  Don’t buy the enormous cans of food at Sam’s Club if you don’t honestly think you can finish them off in one setting.  Instead of purchasing huge quantities of food on your trip to the neighborhood grocery store, plan on shopping only for the immediate future and making a few more trips as a result.

With New Year’s Day not far behind us, there’s still time for a new resolution.  How about resolving to apply Mom’s rules and trying to avoid wasting food this year?

Soap Stack

If you want to enjoy the small pleasures inherent in using things up — or, alternatively phrased, if you are a cheap bastard who wants to avoid spending any unnecessary buck — it takes some work.

Consider the humble bar of soap.  You use it, and at some point it becomes a thin shard of its former self.  It could still serve its cleaning and lathering purpose, but the mechanics make it difficult.  You can’t really grip it in the normal way, because the pressure of your fingers would break it into even smaller pieces.  If you try to palm it instead, the slippery remnants slide from your hand.  And what to do about the odd-shaped hotel soaps — the ovals, and perfect squares, and little circles, all exotically scented — that you have collected during your travels?  This is why most soap ends its life cycle unhappily, tossed into the trash in frustration or melting into oblivion on the shower floor.

The solution is the soap stack.  Through careful engineering and soap size matching, the cheapskate constructs a multi-bar creation that maintains the bulk and heft necessary to proper soap usage.  It takes patience, and some dry aging, for the soap tails to become welded together into a functional unit, leaving you with a riotously multi-hued object.  But when it works, the result is an immensely satisfying accomplishment for the practitioner of household economy.

Of course, it drives Kish nuts when I do this.

The Small Pleasures Inherent In Using Things Up

Lately I’ve been focused on trying to use things up.  It has been a very pleasant and rewarding process.

After the kids left for college, I slowly came to realize that we have lots of extra stuff around.  My first step was to inventory what we had.  What I found amazed me.  We had more than a dozen cans of shaving cream, about 30 unused disposable razors, 10 different kinds of shampoo, and a large box full of bars of soap — and that’s just in the personal hygiene category.  We also had countless pens and pencils, notebooks and pads of paper, iPod chargers and earbuds and extension cords.  So, I put them all together and, for some time now, have been slowly using these household goods — drop by drop, lather by lather, blade by blade, and pen by pen — until they are used up and can be discarded in good conscience.  I’ll probably never have to buy a can of shaving cream again.

This effort has been extremely satisfying, and not just because it scratches my cheapskate itch.  I’m one of those people who think the advertising-driven consumer culture makes Americans accumulate too much stuff.  We end up with all of these unnecessary possessions, and then we cart them around with us from place to place.  It becomes absurd, and suffocating, and embarrassing.  No human needs a dozen cans of shaving cream or a hundred perfectly good pens.  Using them makes me feel a bit more responsible, a bit more virtuous, and a bit less egregious in our contribution to waste and conspicuous consumption.  Every time I use one of these items it’s like I’ve won a small but meaningful battle against the overwhelming forces of consumerism — and that feels good.

Anywhere, U.S.A.

Going through any airport in the United States is an experience in soul-deadening sameness.  Every airport has the same features, the same stores, the same signs, the same walkways, the same arrival/departure boards — in short, the same everything.

Why is this so?  Is it because airport designers and managers believe that most Americans are so immersed in consumer culture that they cannot exist if they ever get more than 50 yards from a Sbarro, a generic newstand, or a sticky, crowded food court?  Is it because airport designers are engaged in a giant cover-your-ass exercise, figuring that if they create an airport that looks like every other airport the county board or city council that floated the bonds won’t complain?  Or do they honestly believe that there is only one way that an airport should look, and feel, and that is all we are going to get?

Magazine ads used to feature mock envelopes with the address “Anytown, U.S.A.”  Small towns, however, always had their own unique features, foods, and local stores.  Airports don’t.  Most pictures you take of an airport — like the picture accompanying this post — look exactly like every other airport.  (In this case, it is Houston.)  It’s sad, and makes you feel like you really aren’t going anywhere at all — just to another bland stop on the sameness express, where every airport has the dash and spice of a mouthful of phlegm.

The Golden Age of Magazines

For some reason we have an original LIFE magazine from 1948 — October 11, 1948, to be precise.  I’m not certain how we received it, although I think it was picked up as a promotion for a website, called http://www.originallifemagazines.com, that sells the magazines as keepsakes to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

It’s a fascinating historical document for its glimpse of an America long since gone.  144 pages long, 12 x 18 in size, and filled with pages of  ads, news coverage, and sections on “Industry,” “Fashion” (this particular week, the focus was on “stoles”), “Music,” “Science,” and “Television,” among others.  This was during an era when people subscribed to multiple magazines and spent their idle hours leafing through the pages, looking at the black-and-white photos of faraway lands and Hollywood stars and examining the products that were so alluringly depicted on the large, glossy pages.

The ads, of course, are the most intriguing part of the magazine to a modern reader because they give a glimpse of the high-powered consumer culture that was to come.  After all, this was only three years after the end of World War II and therefore the end of the Great Depression; consumerism was still aborning.  But you can see the signs of what was to come in the ads — sterling silver for “the happiest brides,” the new Columbia long playing (“LP”) microgroove record, that “plays up to 45 minutes!”, Bufferin, that acts “twice as fast as aspirin,” du Pont nylon and rayon, the new Eureka automatic vacuum cleaner, Bromo Seltzer, the new General Electric adjustable toaster, Vaseline hair tonic to avoid the dreaded “dry scalp,” “self-polishing” Simoniz for floors — and many others.  All of these products could be glimpsed in the background in the I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet sitcoms of the ’50s. 

And, of course, the magazine reflects the culture of the 1940s, where smoking and drinking were accepted parts of life.  The back page is a full-page ad for Camels, featuring an endorsement from Harold Alzana, a tightrope walker, and the statement that, according to a nationwide survey of 113,597 doctors, “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

The woman on the cover, incidentally, was actress Rita Colton, whom I had never heard of.  Colton was a 20-year-old New York actress who memorably seduced a college professor in an ABC-TV show called Hollywood Screen Test and was promptly signed to a Hollywood contract.