Sunday, 3 August 2008

Yes, but the Clutter

from "Vagabond's House"

When I have my house I will suit myself
And have what I'll call my "condiment shelf"
Filled with all manner of herbs and spice,
Curry and chutney for meats and rice,
Pots and bottles of extracts rare -
Onions and garlic will both be there -
And soya and saffron and savory goo
And stuff that I'll buy from an old Hindu.
Ginger and syrup in quaint stone jars,
Almonds and figs in tinseled bars,
Astrakhan caviar, highly prized,
And citron and orange peel crystallized,
Anchovy paste and poha jam,
Basil and chili and marjoram,
Pickles and cheeses from every land,
And flavours that come from Samarkand;
And hung with a string from a handy hook
Will be a dog-eared, well-thumbed book
That is pasted full of recipes
From France and Spain and the Caribees -
Roots and leaves and herbs to use
For curious soups and old ragouts.

Don Blanding

Well, here is (part of) a poem that is snare and a rebuke to the would-be shop-at-home cook. And yet, this poem, first published in 1928 and meant as a kind of unattainable fantasy, now merely describes the standard contents of a North American fridge and pantry. And as I begin to clear mine out in advance of our move next month, I find that I am very typical; very typical indeed.

In the fridge vegetables and fruit get two shelves, then there are the eggs and milk and a plastic tub with cheese and meat. The rest is a forest of jars, bottles and packets, consumed at a snail's pace in dribs and drabs. Yes, I've bottled quite a lot of it myself: the ketchup (tomato and red currant), the various jams and jellies, the pickles and chutneys. But on top of that there's the mayo and mustard, the horseradish and steak sauce, the roasted hazelnut oil, the mint sauce, the tamarind paste and apple butter, and on and on and on. (No caviar, I'm sorry to say, although I did discover a tiny bottle of white truffle oil that I bought on a whim for $18 and have never used.

! )

The wasteful and ridiculous excess continues in the cupboards. Pasta, canned beans and tuna, okay. But then there's the wheat-free buckwheat noodles (six bucks for a little box! Too expensive to actually eat!) the tapioca noodles, the rice noodles, the bean thread noodles, and the rice paper wrappers. Rosewater, vanilla, almond extract, glycerin (glycerin?) cornstarch, arrowroot, dried shiitakes, three kinds of sea-weed, four kinds of sugar and four kinds of rice. (The flours all get a tub of their own in the freezer.) An entire shelf dedicated to salt, pepper and capsicum products; other spices on another shelf. Dry beans, lentils and barley; all good. But also four tetrapacks of coconut milk, a box of black tapioca (for bubble tea, never made although the minute tapioca and tapioca starch get used somewhat regularly,) hazelnut and sunflower seed butters, white and dark baking chocolate, Ovaltine, and about 20 different kinds of tea; loose and bagged, herbal, green and black. There's more, of course, but you start to get the picture.

I am a hoarder. It is true. Food, uh, issues do run in the family. My father is the son of a woman who was nursed until she was six and suffered from rickets because there was so little food to wean her to, and he was brought up during the depression. These things do echo down the generations. I'm not happy unless there is enough food in the house to withstand a three month seige. But this is ridiculous.

So as usual I resolve that when we move, I am going to pare all this stuff down. There is no sense in having stuff sit in the shelves for years getting stale. We're going to start a new regime, where regularly-used items are bought regularly, in small amounts. Unusual items will be purchase in even smaller amounts, as required by a planned menu.

But you'll have to pry the chipped licorice root, agar-agar, eleven kinds of vinegar, and Iranian saffron out of my cold, dead hands.

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