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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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution