Every morning, my mother draws her little red stool up to the open fridge, and with a look of resigned determination, clears its heaving contents out onto the kitchen floor, and is soon to be seen wading her way through a grotesque still-life tableau of murky leftovers and wilted vegetables, mouldy cheeses, and a carousal of teacups filled with dregs of milk gone sour.
Every morning, my mother sorts the dead leaves of coriander, parsley, mint and spinach from the live, then wraps the increasingly limp survivors up in damp newspaper (as suggested in the newspaper) and plastic bags, then lays them back down for another day of hibernation.
Every morning, my mother cuts, peels and boils overripe tomatoes with ageing onions, blends them into a sauce which she freezes for later use. She cuts up peppers, makes tchektchouka. Sometimes she grills the peppers over an open flame and preserves them in olive oil. Sometimes they are stuffed with mince, other times they are worked into a rice dish. The peppers keep coming. There is a relentless army of them, grinding its way past her limited weaponry and her predictable tactics with steely purpose until they finally come to their final resting place. In the bin with all the rest. The rotten potatoes, which have survived our stealthiest attack: chips. The three-day-old lentil soup, three times reheated. The beetroot salad, angry and reeking with vinaigrette, having left a lasting pink stain of revenge on the fridge shelf.
Every morning, my father goes to the market and buys more.
Every morning, my mother asks him not to…
Every week we decide to gather around the leftovers and eliminate them en masse; reheat the lot and tackle it with arm-length loaves of bread, tall glasses of juice and a rewarding dessert. Our well-exercised jaws chomp and chew through the petrified chicken breast, the dehydrated spaghetti bolo-was, and the ubiquitous Mediterranean medley; peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes and peppers.
Every week we make a carrot-potato-onion soup. We freeze uneaten baguettes and make garlic bread, we put others in the oven to harden and make breadcrumbs. We find ways to empty the fridge, the cupboard, the kitchen draws into our bloated bellies. We don’t eat, we clean up. We are the bin before the bin.
We are not alone.
I know every single person who reads this can relate and this is both sad and alarming.
There are days when we stumble about the house, struggling to digest, fat, bloated, hiccoughing, and grouchy. And I remember the days when meals used to be special, and everyone was thin.
When I was little, good food was such a rare commodity that I developed a habit (which I still have) of eating it in steps to savour it. Put down a plate of stew in front of me, and I will work my way towards the meat by eating all the surrounding vegetables first, then mopping up the sauce with my piece of beef or lamb. As children, we were given tantalising shreds of protein, swimming in a sea of fibre and carbs. Precious stuff. We left it till last; we gave it the respect it deserved.
Give me a Snickers bar, and I may disgust you by eating the chocolate coating first, then nibbling the caramel and nougat filling separately. Other times I cut it up into slices before dismantling it, for convenience and appearance’s sake. If I eat it whole the overwhelming richness makes me queasy. When I was little, chocolate was an occasional treat, and everyone ate it like Charlie Bucket, though being real children we didn’t share it with our grubby extended family, we ate it in the dark stairwell of our block of flats and wiped away the evidence.
When I was little my dad would come back from business trips every few months and present us with apples the size of our bony heads and bananas the length of our bony arms. We all got a quarter of each, and my generous mother, to our dismay, would then share the rest with the neighbours, who were ‘proper poor’. The first time next-door’s Mohamed was given a chunk of peeled banana, he flew into a rage; his sister got a whole piece of apple and all he got was a piece of turnip!
These days the apples sometimes land in the bin with the other rejects. They have grown common enough for us to realise that we don’t really like them. We can afford to be picky with fruit.
We can afford to wrinkle our noses at cheap cuts of meat, at boring local biscuits, at our least favourite flavour of yoghurt, at peppers. We can afford to leave half-drunk 500-dinar bottles of orange juice behind on the tables of overpriced restaurants, where we eat our fill, and pay the bill without flinching. That wasn’t bad for 5000 dinars!
These days are different. But are they better?