My grandma used to wash her used gladwrap and peg it on the clothesline to dry. At Christmas she carefully unwrapped her presents so as to not tear the wrapping paper – which we recognised covering our birthday presents later on in the year. Pencils were used down to the stub and a meal was never truly finished with leftovers turning up in the next meal and the next until only the bones were left for stock. Let loose in her yard, we used to monkey-bar from fruit tree to fruit tree, chewing on apricots, plums, apples, nectarines and sucking the juice out of passionfruit. When my brothers and I introduced her to an orange kitten our aunty found in the woodpile, Granny helpfully offered to drown it in a bucket of water.
As our old share-house fridge grumbles, answering the cartwheels of hungry stomachs, I think about my grandma’s frugality. My funds are in a freefall, the Kelvinator glows white and the pantry coughs up a dismal shell of an onion. Usually a housemate will step in and feed the masses, but this month we are all hungry. Vet bills, car registration, overlapping rent payments, a job fallen through, somehow we’re all on the back foot. As far as we can tell it has nothing to do with the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), yet this visible absence of food does help us imagine what a potential recession may look like.
Peering into the dusty caverns of our pantry, we share stories heard from parents and grandparents about the trials of being fed in hard times. Lorelei’s great-aunt was forced to unpick a pincushion stuffed with oats. “She boiled up the dust and the weevils and the old oats into a watery porridge.” We glance at the household wheat bag – a cushion that is heated and hugged when one of us has cramps. Unanimously it’s decided the wheat bag is too important to unpick. My partner, Emilio, remembers his mum (an immigrant to Australia in the sixties) stopping the car along the railway tracks on the Hurstbridge line to dig up fennel. “It was so embarrassing,” he recalls. “But now I can’t walk past fennel without wanting to get a spade.”
My grandpa used to tell my brothers and I about the rat that fell into a boiling pot of stew. It was in a mess hall, somewhere in Europe during the Second World War. The rodent had tight-roped its way across the pole on which the pot hung over a fire, no doubt planning on looping its tail around the handle and bungy-jumping in for some soup – but lost its footing. Grandpa and the cook were the only ones to see it fall. They exchanged a glance and tacitly decided to say nothing.
On hearing this, my housemate’s cat quickly slunk out the door.
There are so many stories. A murmur over email creates a flood of memories in my inbox. Mike, my parents’ neighbour, who was a child during the Blitz and collected shrapnel from the aircraft dogfights in the sky to sell for the brass scrap, recalls brushing his teeth with salt. “I still have 95% of my own teeth, so it was not all bad.” Mothers and grandmothers were remembered for their inventiveness – making mints out of dried milk and peppermint essence, banana cream out of boiled parsnips and banana essence. Barbara Devlin’s grandma lived in Essex when the Depression cast its gloomy shadow and recalls stories of the weekly ‘Sunday’ roast. “She would take a tin of Spam and dot the meat with cloves before putting it in the oven. This would then be carved very thinly and relished.”
Faye Snaith, who was three years old when the Depression began, says her mother turned their father’s old trousers into skirts for her and her sister. Double sheets were transformed into single sheets and finally into sheets for the baby cot. Shoe tongues replaced the worn-out heels of boots and the collars on her father’s shirt were reversible to get the maximum white out of it. “Now you need some skill to do that. She used to go to the doll factory and get a head, then make a body out of scrap material for us.”
Today Faye is almost eighty and lives in Essendon, an inner northwest suburb of Melbourne. “I’m still very frugal,” she says. “I must be one of the last ones to still ask for lay-by in shops.” Faye isn’t fazed about the pending recession. “I can manage. I don’t know about the younger people though. I mean you’ve got to have an operation just to get the phones out of their ears. But I’ll be fine.” Born in New South Wales, her family moved to Melbourne after her father shut down the family business. “People were trying to pay for food with a pillow or a chair. We had to close.” Faye’s mother often went without meals so they could eat. “If anyone surprised us by dropping in, she served them her portion. We had coupons for meat, which was always gravy beef because it was cheaper and tougher, and cooked until it was like a rag.”
“But we children never wanted for more. We used to race each other from school to see who could get home first for dripping,” she recalls. “We loved dripping.” There were also golden dumplings to fight over, kneaded handfuls of flour and water steamed and fried in golden syrup. Off milk was transformed into a soft cheese, sometimes flavoured with pepper and herbs. Wine could be bought from a local teetotaller’s house. “It was made from turnips, mulberries and rhubarb.” Oxo stock cubes were a treat to nibble and savour over the course of a day and the toughest, teeniest piece of hardened cheese was grated for toast rather than thrown in the bin. “Nothing was thrown out. Food never lasted long enough to go rotten.”
In 2007 the Love Food, Hate Waste website was created in the United Kingdom aimed at reducing food waste. Supporting the campaign, Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged supermarkets to stop ‘special’ offers such as ‘three for the price of two’, claiming that for every three bags of groceries bought, one ended up in the bin. Dumpster divers are a testament to this. An average haul from a local supermarket dumpster will turn up a dinted container of sunscreen, an array of cheeses past their use-by-date from cheddar to brie, yoghurt, tinned tomatoes, pasta, a broken bag of dog food, and a box-load of vegetables and fruit – a little brown around the edges. Rinsed, taste-tested, the bruises carved off the fruit and vegetables reveals a perfectly good selection of groceries that was on its way to landfill.
It is an odd situation – one that would be very confusing to my grandmother who could not stand waste but would also have had very little patience for punks in dumpsters. But with landfill constantly overstretching to accommodate our excess, not to mention the elasticity of our stomachs, it seems that those who confront human waste are a special few. Today we are wading into a recession. One that is, say the experts, going to be devastating. But so far, the indicators of past hardship – empty supermarket shelves and rotting cabbage – are nowhere to be seen. In fact, supermarket trolleys at first glance, seem to be spilling with produce.
I’ve often thought that thriftiness goes hand in hand with health, a simple uncomplicated logic that if one didn’t have much money, one didn’t have much to spend on groceries. But I’ve got it all wrong. You can buy quite a lot with not much money. Dr Cate Burns, of the World Health Organisation Obesity Prevention Unit at Deakin, says that healthy staples such as milk, bread, eggs and some meats have risen in cost 20 per cent above inflation, while soft drinks, fats and oils, cakes and biscuits have dropped below inflation – soft drinks by 20 per cent, the rest by 10 per cent.
“These price differences are seen at the supermarket check-out for example,” she wrote on the ABC news website last year. “1.25 litres of soft drink costs less than a dollar (99c) while a litre of milk is $1.59.” Dr Burns does not dismiss popular opinion that values, education and family habits all have a role in healthy consumption but believes cost is ultimately the decider. “Consider a single mother with a nine-year-old son living on the Newstart allowance,” she continues. “She gets roughly $243 per week. To meet her protein and calcium requirements and those of her son the household needs to purchase 2 litres of milk per day. This will cost about $22 per week buying generic milk.”
Burns attributes the broadening middle class in India and China, short shelf life of whole foods, and the drought as contributing to the increasingly competitive prices of healthy food while food that is energy dense and nutrient poor relies on relatively cheap ingredients. Ironically in Australia, Burns points out, certain products such as soft drink got a free kick when GST was introduced – the 10 per cent tax much lower than its previous wholesale tax. If my grandma were alive today, I know exactly what she would say about the GFC (Global Financial Crisis).
“People ought to tighten more than just their fiscal belt,” she would tout. Slender as a hat stand, she had an embarrassing insensitivity to fat people. When she saw an overweight person on the street, she widened her eyes – much to my brothers and my embarrassment – and turn theatrically to watch them wobble past. “Dis-gusting” she would say audibly under her breath. To her, fat people were a gross and fascinating post-war species. Political correctness aside, she was right. We are today, as a country, a bunch of fatties. Almost 50 per cent of Australian women and over 60 per cent of Australian men weigh in at the scales as overweight. Our arms wobble like testicles, our face cheeks are flanked like steaks and our behinds are a fire hazard.
But what my grandma didn’t necessarily realise is that it is cheaper to eat junk food. Obesity could be the developed world’s revised method of starvation. The World Health Organisation have forecasted that in five years time approximately 2.3 billion adults will be overweight and more than 700 million adults will be obese. The cost of healthy foods is rising more quickly than the cost of unhealthy food – and in light of climate change, the situation is expected to worsen.
Nutritionists often say that the people of England never ate better than at the time of ration cards and vegetable patches during the Second World War. People were told to ‘Dig For Victory!’ turning their flowerbeds, lawns, cricket pitches, and gardens into vegetable patches and orchards. Hyde Park set up a piggery. Kensington Park was transformed into rows of cabbages and songs were sung over the wireless to encourage people to grow their own food, followed by slogans such as ‘Carrots keep you healthy and help you see in the blackout’. People ate crow pie, squirrel-tail soup, grilled pigeon, carrot jelly, veal knuckles and egg-less milk-less butter-less cakes, but it was the access to fresh fruit and vegetables that nutritionists now say is missing from British diets.
Urban vegetable patches tend to flourish during wartime and economic downturns. When America waded into the First World War, the US Food Administration issued its first food-conservation guidelines, handing out leaflets with titles such as ‘Make a Little Meat Go a Long Way’. The Department of Agriculture formed a committee to help the public plant a million new backyard and vacant lot gardens and ‘Fight With Food’ posters were lacquered onto public walls. In Cuba today, urban veggie gardens have proliferated after three hurricanes tore through the Caribbean over Christmas, ruining a third of the small island’s farmland. Such gardens often become a kind of patriotism among civilians – these communal turnings of the soil not only providing food but togetherness. And while many are created out of need, they also provided comfort, a sense of sufficiency in the face of hard times.
And so it is an interesting turn of events that sees President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 say to American citizens “Everyone who creates or cultivates a garden helps… This is the time for America to correct her unpardonable fault of wastefulness and extravagance” to Australian leaders today urging Australians about to face pending hardship, to keep consuming. It seems there are two types of economies – the financial economy and the real economy. The financial crisis is difficult to get your head around – it is a crisis of the invisible. People have lost money they have never physically held – perhaps even earned – their investments simply ballooning and deflating with the times. While the real economy is, well, real. Food, medical costs, bills, jobs, clothing, transport, school costs – these are the things that can be defined as keeping a roof over one’s head. And yet, according to the modern economy, none of these things are enough.
In the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart unusually celebrate humanity’s inclination to consume. Unusual because unlike so many opinions on this issue, these two authors, consecutively an architect and a chemist, believe our desire to consume is natural and not inherently greedy or needing to be curbed. However, they write, we need to be literal about the word consume. “You may be referred to as a consumer but there is very little that you actually consume … Everything else is designed for you to throw away. But where is ‘away’? ‘Away’ does not really exist.”
The authors, lead by example. Their book is not a tree. Made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers, it is waterproof, durable, and quite beautiful. It can also be recirculated indefinitely – remade into new books and other products. “If humans are truly going to prosper, we will have to learn to imitate nature’s highly effective cradle-to-cradle system of nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of ‘waste’ does not exist,” writes McDonough and Braungart. In short things shouldn’t be made in the first place if their fate is inevitably landfill. The challenge these two authors set up for their readers is how can we take ecology and the economy in the same direction?
Now this may all seem a long way from an empty pantry in a humble rented blue painted share-house on stilts in Brisbane – but is it really? Our bins are full while the fridge and kitchen cupboards are empty. By the looks of all the wrappers and foils and packaging, we should have food. But what is more interesting is the creativity we’ve put into our meals as supplies have dwindled and the strange satisfaction in letting the kitchen empty. We have invented recipes using ingredients we never knew we owned. Lorelei and I made damper in a hole in the backyard using coals (the cooking method was highly unnecessary but fun), gone on fruit-picking missions and visited friends who own chickens and come back with armloads of eggs. And finally one evening after hunting around the backyard, I turn up some basil, Vietnamese mint, parsley, a small pumpkin, and tomatoes (albeit a little floury due to lack of water) I planted a month or two ago. Serving it with steamed rice, we call it Single Mum’s Surprise.
My grandma would have approved – of the meal, not the single mum.