Another cheeky midnight feast. Image: Getty
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Will Self: Why the fridge is food purgatory

A place where cling-filmed leftovers await their final judgement.

‘‘Then he took the five loaves and the two fishes and, looking up to heaven, he blessed them and brake and gave to the disciples to set before the multitude. And they did eat and were all filled; and there was taken up fragments that remained to them 12 baskets.”

Setting more complicated exegetical questions to one side, surely the most miraculous fact about the events recalled by this passage from the Gospel of Luke is that after the 5,000 had been fed, there were still some leftovers. Luke is alone in specifying the quantity of these; according to John, “There were left some fishy bits.”

We now know that the Gospel accounts were set down many years after this al fresco banquet – and who, in the normal course of things, can be expected to remember what was uneaten? So it seems fair to speculate that Luke was making a point here about not simply abundance but superabundance and, indeed, wastage.

No kind of wastage is more troubling than that of food. “Eat up your broccoli, children,” we say. “Remember the starving children in Africa.” To throw perfectly good vittles in the bin hurts us far more than chucking away, say, two-year-old computer equipment that is not exactly obsolete, only a little bit slow.

When I was a child, my mother would send me down to Greenspan’s, the kosher deli, to buy half a pound of smoked salmon scraps – and, oh, was there any meal more virtuous-tasting than those viscid remains? When I grew older, I used to delight in buying bags of broken biscuits from market stalls, not only because they were cheap but also because I had the crunchy thrill of consuming that which would otherwise turn to dust. These were the fishes and the loaves conjured into being by the grey magic of the market and such repasts remain, to this day, my favourite.

I’ve some rich foodie friends who eat out whenever they please at the swankiest of restaurants; they delight in quizzing the waiter, calling for the chef and dissecting the menu before they anatomise the dishes. Yet they once confessed to me that the meal they loved most was what they termed a “hooded supper”.

And what’s this? It’s when you’ve fed the children their bland stuff and are too tired to consider making yourselves anything elaborate (a large part of the labour consisting in the necessary negotiation over what that thing should be) and instead declare open season: you both pull the hoods of your fleecy tops down over your faces, go to the fridge, yank out the Tupperware boxes and cling-film-wrapped bowls that most appeal to you and, standing at the counter, wolf it all down, groaning the while.

I got their point entirely. For the most part, the preservation of leftovers is one of the most potent instances of the triumph of hope over expectation. Each greasily wooden sausage, every bald-faced tomato all twisted congealings of pasta – these are offered up to the domestic gods as evidence of our good faith and conscience; proof that we understand how blessed we are and that we do not take for granted that we are able to go to a 24-hour Tesco Metro whenever we please and buy a microwaveable ready meal.

That these items then sit in the fridge for a day or three before acquiring a fungal bloom and being chucked out is beside the point. Indeed, this sense we have of the fridge as a sort of purgatory for comestibles in which they await the final judgement only adds to the sacerdotal character of the whole ritual.

So, to break into purgatory and gobble up the lost souls of cold potatoes – to do so is to enact a miracle. The four-day-old lamb chop, smeared with mint sauce and eaten in the small hours of the morning by the light that spills from yonder fridge; the knifeloads of peas quavering towards a quivering mouth; the slices of honey-glazed ham that taste all the more sweet because they’re on the turn – to eat any or all of these is to somehow become a personification of the charitable impulse itself, for in so doing are you not both giver and receiver at once?

We do not know what happened to those 12 baskets of fragments but I like to think that Jesus put them in the pantry for a couple of days, before on the morning of the third they were resurrected.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

Photo: LYNSEY ADDARIO
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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left