‘‘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