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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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