August 1, 2009
Living in the senior apartments on campus has its perks and its problems, and most seem to revolve around food. Residents are not required to have a meal plan, so the chef in me gets to indulge itself in preparing meals for my apartment mates. Consequently, the economic side cringes at having to pay for all of my own groceries. None of us are strangers to leftovers and reused food, but oftentimes a container of mac and cheese or green beans will find itself pushed to the back of the fridge, undiscovered for two or three weeks until it is found and deemed inedible.
A few weeks ago, I pulled out a jug of milk to use for baking and, upon a close sniff test, discovered it smelled a bit sour. My roommate Angie was sitting on the deck, and I stuck my head out of the door to ask her whether she thought it was still good or if we should pour it out. What started out as a simple question turned into a discussion on foreign cultures and their food customs. Both of us are somewhat well travelled, and we had both noticed on our excursions to Europe a tendency to leave milk and orange juice on the counter, and a preference to serve them at room temperature. When the conversation was over, I went back inside, but my mind was still stuck overseas.
My first encounter with room temperature juice came when I stayed with my host family. The juice on the counter was what first caught my attention upon entering the kitchen, and instead of asking why it was there or how they served their juice, I immediately asked my host mother if she had any ice. I can still visualize her smile and remember how indulgent she was of me and my American customs. As a first time traveler and high school junior, I didn’t see anything wrong with my response. But now, looking back, I am ashamed at how I acted.
Every morning, my host mother would rise early and head out to the street market. She bought her bread fresh at least twice a week and fresh vegetables and new milk every day. Instead of buying in bulk, she bought only what was necessary for the meals she had planned out for the next few days. The fridge was rarely used, and she only had one for meats that she bought a day or two in advance from a butcher in the local grocery. Many would assume that this is a luxury, the privilege to have the time to go shopping every day, to pick out fresh food, to plan out meals in advance. It is, however, a necessity to their way of life and circumstances. The cost of food and living is higher in Europe than it is in America, and so buying only what is needed and keeping energy costs down are driving forces for many families. In smaller towns like the one I stayed in, there are no Wal-Marts or super grocery stores; there are instead neighborhood markets and convenience stores.
My French mother went early in order to find good deals on what she needed for the meals she had planned out and because the rest of her day was filled with work. Her family could not afford to buy more than what was needed not only because of cost, but also because of storage space. They did not have a giant freezer to keep bags of frozen ready-to-make dinners or containers of ice cream. Their refrigerator was smaller than she was, standing at about four feet high, and it was used to keep food that was pre-prepared for dinner or for meats that would be used that day or the next. Everything was carefully planned and purchased in order to avoid waste and save as much as possible.
How different that is from the way my family grocery shops. Instead of every day or every other day, we make a once every two or three weeks trip, only running to the store in between for forgotten essentials or if we run out. There is no advanced meal planning unless for special occasions, and food sometimes sits on a shelf or in the fridge for weeks until a use is found for it. Eventually, everything is either prepared or thrown out.We stock our fridge up, and we consider it a bad day when we realize how empty it is. Even though my family is one that budgets and saves, we still sometimes shop for food as if we are anticipating a food shortage.
Comparing the two cultures, I find myself wondering if either way is better or if they are both just different. So often I look in the fridge or cupboard and complain that I either have too many options or nothing I want. I have only recently begun thinking ahead and making a list of what I want to buy based on what I am going to be cooking, but even then I make my purchases a week or two in advance. Have I become accustomed to providing myself with more than enough options, or with saving myself an hour every day by power shopping twice a month? Perhaps it is we that have the privilege, being able to purchase mass amounts of food at once and often without concern as to when and for what every item will be used.
So there I stood in front of the sink, taking off the lid and pouring out “ruined” milk, wondering if there was anything I could use it for even as I let it run down the drain. It was only a moment, a brief instant that happened weeks ago and is common in many households. I still find myself, though, pondering the question that bubbled in my mind: which was more spoiled, the milk or me?
Maggie McLinden is a senior from Louisville, Ohio, majoring in Integrated Language Arts/English Education.