the lost art of wasting nothing

It’s a bit hard for me to think of anything beyond Incredible Edible Todmorden at the moment. We’re in the last week of our crowdfunding campaign and I’m also completing the edits on the manuscript of Incredible! before I send them to my co-author Pam Warhurst for approval.

So although I’ve got a few ideas for future blog posts swirling around my head, I thought today I’d post an extract from the book. It’s a part I particularly enjoyed writing and it draws on the fascinating work of Rachael Babar, an Incredible Edible supporter who interviewed some of the older residents of the town about their memories of food and growing.

At a time when food waste is often in the news – Tesco recently revealed that 40 per cent of their apples, almost half of all bakery products and a staggering 68 per cent of bagged salads get thrown away – the memories of lifelong Tod resident Barbara Diggle are a sobering reminder that such profligacy has not always been the norm.

Barbara Diggle and her granny

Barbara Diggle and her granny

In the extract below, Barbara  talks about growing up in the 1930s and about the amazing skills of her grandmother, who knew how to use every last scrap of food to feed her family at a time when nobody could afford to waste anything.

 Every Saturday, while still quite a young child, Barbara went to Todmorden market with two carpet bags for her granny’s shopping.

Money was tight and Barbara’s memories of those trips are dominated by the different ways she tried to get the most out of every last penny. She had strict instructions not to start shopping until the superintendent rang a bell to indicate that it was nearly closing time. Since there was no refrigeration, the traders had to sell everything as fast as possible and that was when Barbara closed in for the bargains. Bananas were seven for sixpence during the week, but on Saturday afternoon she could snap up a bunch for tuppence. Pie meat was sold by the handful and to this day she remembers that the butcher with the biggest hands was called Tommy Burton. She also had to ask the butcher for a sheep’s ‘jimmy’, the local name for a sheep’s head.

Finally, Barbara would drag the carpet bags full of food back up the hill to her home where her granny would be waiting with a pot of milky tea and a freshly baked pie. ‘It would be a meat and tatty pie or something like that, a pasty with onion in. It could have cheese in if I was lucky. It could be a cheese and onion pie. I would sit down with my back to the fire, draw the table up to the fire so that I would be warm in the winter time, take my shoes off and wipe my feet and she used to give me a nice meal and I would have my milky tea.’

If Barbara had managed to get a sheep’s jimmy, then her grandmother would use every part of it to provide meals for the family. The tongue was cooked in a side oven over the coal fire all night and for half of the next day until it was tender. ‘We would skin it whilst it was still warm. You can’t skin a tongue when it has gone cold; it sticks like glue. Then of course we would round it and put it on a saucer with a plate on the top and a flat iron on top of that and that would shape it and it would press it overnight. Then if anybody came to tea we could slice it off and put it between thin bread and butter.’

If someone in the family was sick they would be offered the sheep’s brains, poached in milk and butter and served on toast as a delicacy. If not, the brains were simply boiled in salt and water. The rest of the head was also boiled until the meat was tender and ‘falling off the bone’. Once the meat had been served, Barbara’s granny would cook up the skull with vegetables from the garden, and pulses to make a thick, nourishing soup.  Finally she would render any left over fat. This could be used for other recipes, or even clarified to act as a seal for pots of preserved fruit.

Part of the work of Incredible Edible involves running classes to help people learn skills that are in danger of being lost, skills that help us to make better use of our food and that we all need to recover as spiralling fuel costs and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns mean we can no longer rely on cheap food imports.

They haven’t quite got on to sheep’s heads yet, but so far more than 1,000 people in Todmorden have attended classes on subjects such as preserving, fruit tree grafting and sausage making. You can read all about that and much, much more in the Incredible! book, which we plan to publish in the spring next year.

I am extremely grateful to the many people who have backed our campaign to crowd fund enough money for an initial print run of the book about Incredible Edible. If you would like to join them, you can do so here. It’s quite safe: if we don’t reach our target you don’t pay anything. Also, I am not making any money personally out of the campaign.

the power of free

I’m trying to read a news story about some people whose lives were so desperate that they climbed into a boat and attempted to escape to Italy. The boat capsized and most of them drowned.

All the time I’m reading, there’s a flickering on the side of the screen: it’s a moving advertisement from an online shop where I bought a dress almost a year ago.

I want to focus on the article, the picture of coffins in silent, accusing rows; the doctor describing the Mediterranean sea as a cemetery. But the dresses won’t stop tickling at the edge of my vision.

There’s a battle going on inside my head now: concern about the the vanished migrants is actually having to compete with a whole load of worry about whether I’ve got the right clothes to wear for an interview next week.

Sometimes the endless battering from the god of consumerism just wears you down.

I’m reading about people who literally had nothing and now they don’t even have their lives, but I’m still managing to feel anxious about whether I’ve got enough clothes.

Last time I wrote about how growing food has helped me face down the god of consumerism and remove some of the anxiety that prevails in our society today, the anxiety of not having enough or even of not being enough: personally I’m quite vulnerable to a suggestion that new clothes will make me more acceptable.

Sometimes though I think we need to join with others to take a stand against these kind of lies.

And one thing that seems to work really well is when people get together to give out free food.

Last week, for example, the anti-food waste campaign Feeding the Five Thousand organised a free banquet in the centre of Edinburgh.


Volunteers cooked 7,000 meals entirely from food that would otherwise have been thrown away. It was a powerful, prophetic stand against the mentality of scarcity. Apart from anything else it was a reminder of the excruciating irony that a system which is fuelled by convincing people they do not have enough, simultaneously creates the conditions for mountains of food to be thrown away.

On a smaller scale, there’s an organisation called – appropriately enough – Abundance, which started in my home town of Sheffield.

Every autumn, Abundance volunteers go out around our lovely city, harvesting fruit that would otherwise rot. There is literally tons of it.

Then they give it away – to people on the margins who find it hard to access fresh food, and to organisations that benefit the whole community, like libraries. Places that exist for the common good.

I went on my first Abundance harvest the other week. An elderly couple who no longer have the physical agility to cope with their enormous damson tree called us in. Younger, braver volunteers than me shinned up the tree and shook the branches and hundreds of damsons thudded onto an outstretched tarpaulin below.

tree climb

After we had given the couple who own the tree enough fruit for a few crumbles, we shared the softest among ourselves for turning into jam that night and sent the rest back to the Abundance offices to be distributed later.


The whole experience was fun, it built connections, it was nourishing in every sense of the word.

In his book Journey to the Common Good, the theologian Walter Brueggemann writes brilliantly about how the mentality of scarcity, a mentality that operates through anxiety and fear, militates against the practice of neighbourliness. It makes us defensive rather than generous and leaves us exhausted and cynical with nothing left over to contribute to our communities.

Brueggemann maintains that we have to make repeated, deliberate departures from the forces that want to trap us into this culture of not-enough.

Joining with others to give away food is, I think, one way of making that kind of departure.

Of course I’m not arguing that food should always be free, or that people shouldn’t be paid for their skills in food production. But there’s something about giving it away from time to time that releases us, if only temporarily, from the anxiety of not-enough and frees our imaginations to embrace the possibility that there might be a better way of doing things.

identity crises

When our oldest daughter was about five, she brought a pile of pictures home from school that she had to sort into ‘living’ and ‘non-living’ things. At first I thought it was a bit basic – surely every five-year-old knows that a cat and a car are fundamentally different, that one is alive and the other is not.

Then I remembered how my daughter would have long conversations with her toy trains, and how upset my friend had been when her young son pushed their cat down the stairs.

Perhaps the boundaries aren’t that obvious after all, at least not when you’re five.

For adults, though, it should be different, shouldn’t it? We would look away embarrassed if we saw a grown woman chatting to a toy, and we would be scandalised to learn of a man throwing a cat down the stairs.

And yet there have been some food-related stories recently that have made me wonder whether as adults we aren’t becoming increasingly confused about the fundamental difference between things that are alive and things that are not.

Exmoor ponies

Exmoor ponies*

The uproar when it was disclosed thatsome burgers sold as ‘beef’ actually contained up to 29% horse was, for sure, partly about the fact that somewhere along the line the product had been dishonestly labelled. But there was something more visceral about it too. Because horse is not habitually eaten in the UK I think some of the shock and outrage had to do with the fact that people had to face the fact that burgers contain, um, dead animals.

We have largely managed to hide the connection between eating and death from ourselves. Especially in a supermarket, meat products are sanitised, neatly arranged on plastic trays and covered with cling film.

When I stopped buying supermarket meat and began to get it from the butcher instead, I was at first slightly revolted by the smell of raw meat and the fact that some of the butcher’s knives had blood on them.

Goodness knows how I would have reacted if I had seen a pig being slaughtered to provide me with bacon.

Actually I’m glad I don’t have to be present when animals are killed but I am increasingly worried about the profound effect on our lives that is the result of being so disconnected from the realities of food production.

Food is very big business indeed and it benefits the global corporations to foster this disconnect, to hypnotise adult consumers so that they become like kindergarten pupils, unsure whether what they eat belongs in the ‘living’ or ‘non-living’ pile.

Because if we remembered that food is life, we might get a bit uneasy about it being treated as a commodity.

We might think it was a bit weird to treat something that once had life in it – a hen or a tomato, say – as though it were just another widget on an assembly line.

The week before the burger scandal, people were shocked by a report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which highlighted the incredible waste in our modern food system. There was, rightly, a particular outrage over the fact that in the UK up to 30 per cent of vegetables are thrown away because they don’t meet supermarkets’ strict standards on physical appearance.

But this kind of waste is inevitable if we buy into the deception that apples are just another consumer product akin to shoes or cars, rather than something that has to die in order for us to carry on living.

The shiny, uniform displays in the supermarket give the strong impression that apples emerge ready-made from a factory. They encourage us to forget that apples are alive, that they once grew in an orchard, that they have been wonderfully transformed from seed to flower to fruit as a result of complex interactions between soil and insects and weather, combined with the expertise of farmers and growers.

apple blossom

Future apples **

If we think of food production as something linear, like a manufacturing process, then we start to lose touch with the reality that living things – including ourselves – are part of a complex web in which all the parts depend on one another to function properly.

This lack of connection impoverishes our lives in all kinds of ways and has alarming implications for the way we live together in the world.

The food giants like to lull us into a kind of dozy inattentiveness that stops us from asking too many questions about what we are eating. If anything good can come out of these recent scandals, it might be that they jolt us back to reality and encourage us to think more carefully about how our meals end up on our plates.

Picture by David Masters. Used under Creative Commons licence; ** Picture by Richard Wood. Used under Creative Commons Licence