Wanton waste or respecting what we eat

SOME years ago, I popped in to see a friend who runs a farm shop and found her with steam coming out of her ears. She had just despatched a customer who had come in to complain about the “amount of waste” there was on the (very expensive) free-range chicken she had bought for her Sunday lunch.

My friend had tried, with astonishing forebearance, to find out what the woman had done to the chicken that could have rendered so much of it useless. It turned out that after roasting it, she had no idea what to do with the substantial left-overs, so had thrown them away. It was almost enough to turn my friend’s dark hair white!

Clearly, this customer had no idea of the old “cold on Monday, pie on Tuesday, soup on Wednesday” mantra for the Sunday joint or bird. And if you make stock from the bones after you have made the pie (or perhaps a risotto), you can have chicken and other soups every day that week.

The food writer Rose Prince, who has a home near Blandford, wrote powerfully about the importance of using every bit of a joint or poultry or seafood in her first book, The New English Kitchen*. She takes the example of a langoustine – on the face of it, a luxury food – and shows that by using the shell to make a broth which you can also pour over noodles, you make two or three meals. She says: “This simple idea not only enables you to eat well – twice – but is also a solution to the contemporary kitchen dilemma: how to make better-quality food something everyone can eat every day.” She goes on to explain how to find economical ways of buying the best (farms, farm shops, markets, independent food shops) and making the most of it in your own kitchen.

I was forcibly reminded how far many people are removed from the sources of food during our recent visit to Alaska – where many people, Alaskan natives and adopted Bush-dwellers, follow a traditional subsistence foraging, hunting and fishing existence.

We were being driven from Anchorage to Talkeetna (which was the inspiration for Cicely in Northern Exposure, for those who remember that eccentric and delightful show). Alaska has very few roads, and this is one of the main ones. For much of its length it passes through wilderness – forests, marginal land, tundra and wetlands. In a long woodland section, we came across a crash – the vehicle had hit a moose. The car was a total wreck, the moose was dead, the driver was OK.

Our driver explained, not to shock his passengers but to help them understand what life is like for ordinary people in Alaska, that the next phone call, after the the emergency services (and looking after any injured people), was to the local number to collect the carcase. It might be a church, a community group, a food bank or the native council. The moose (or caribou) would be taken away, and would be butchered to provide meat to hungry poor families. It would provide many meals for many people and would go into freezers or deep-winter storage caches to see them through the dark days (which can last for up to eight months) when nothing moves in the forests.

How eminently sensible, we thought. “Ugh, roadkill!” shuddered some of our fellow passengers. They were genuinely shocked and we could not persuade them of the common sense of this policy. If the carcase had been lying there for days – unlikely, of course, as wolves, bears and other creatures would rapidly have picked the bones clean – it could not be used for human consumption. But this moose was still barely cold. It was, strictly speaking, fresh meat. And our travelling companions would probably have eaten a moose-burger quite happily in one of Anchorage’s bars and restaurants.

All over the world, native people treat their food and prey with more respect than we do because they often don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They have traditions that honour the animal, bird or marine creature they have hunted. They have an innate understanding of the interconnectedness of their lives with the land and the woods and the rivers and the sea. We heard how the native people of the Arctic coast and the Alaskan islands use every morsel of flesh and every last sinew and bone of the whales, walrus and seals that they are still permitted to hunt, on a strictly licensed basis (and using traditional kayaks and harpoons).

So many in the west treat food with disdain and food animals with something between ignorance and horror. We really don’t want to know – we don’t want to know about their lives and we don’t want to know about their deaths. If we did, who would want cheap milk from a mega dairy, where the cows never see grass or daylight? Who would want chicken from a broiler house or battery?

We can learn much from people who respect and use every bit of the creatures they kill for their everyday existence and subsistence. In Alaska, the Department of Fish and Game has a law on “Wanton waste” –  it states that after you have killed an animal “it is your responsibility to salvage all of the edible meat.” The law reflects the high value Alaskans place on “game meat, ethical hunting and respectful treatment of game animals.”

And it is a law that is enforced and has sharp teeth. Failure to salvage edible meat is a serious offence, with a minimum fine of $2,000 and seven days in jail. The more egregious charge of “wanton waste,” carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $10,000 fine. For trophy hunters, the law states that “the horn, hide, or antlers may be taken out of the field only after the meat is packed out.”

The UK wastes more food than any other country in Europe and almost 50 per cent of the total amount of food thrown away comes from our homes – 7 million tonnes of food and drink every year in the UK, and more than half of this was usable. Wasting this food costs the average household £470 a year, rising to £700 for a family with children, the equivalent of around £60 a month (source: www.lovefoodhatewaste.com). Perhaps if we were fined for “wanton waste,” we would be more careful and show more respect to the food we have earned money to buy, even if we haven’t had to hunt or fish for it.

* The New English Kitchen by Rose Prince; published by Fourth Estate

Fanny Charles