The evolutionary origins of surplus

I began to review Tristram Stuart's book Waste here. Tonight I want to come back and share what I learnt and thought from his chapter, (11) 'The Evolutionary Origins of Surplus'.

Many people assume that society's blase attitude to wasting food is a
recent phenomenon and that in the past people were more frugal , and food was
too valuable to discard. If this were true, rectifying our current leveles
of waste would simply be a matter of reverting to earlier customs.
But the history of human wastefulness has deeper roots than late capitalism or
consumer culture. Waste is a product of food surplus, and surplus has been
the foundation of human success for over 10.000 years. Everything we call
civilisation depends upon it. (Stuart, p.169)

So Stuart begins what for me was one of the most interesting chapters of the entire book. I love it that he goes beyond the radar of the current romanticism regarding historical food practices. While I am skating near this particular soapbox, how 'bout I just jump right on top of it, regardless of how it wobbles? Women, indeed households, in the past, did not form these seamless beautiful harmonious units of supportive wonderfulness all the time. Women (just for starters) got turfed out for being 'witches', a term which could be used to encompass any lack of convention which others did not like. Extra-marital affairs ripped apart families in the past just as now. Daughters in law often lived long lives with no say in the household in which they lived.

More specifically, food practices in New Zealand (this would apply to Australia as well as to other countries to some extent). White, or Pakeha, New Zealand settlers overwhelmingly came from an industrialised country. While their seventeenth century forbears in the countryside may well have made their own bread (but is it Beowulf where we see that bread making is a specialised/centralised activity from a loooong time ago?). If you lived in a Glasgow tenement or the crowded hovels of England's industrialised cities, there wasn't a wee green patch out the back to grow veges and chooks on and an aga in the flat for making the daily bread. Many of our ancestors were dependent on the shops more than us. If you were Irish, then your tradition may have been the easier to make (timewise) soda bread rather than yeasted bread.

So while high country farmers made their own bread (as per Mona Anderson's descriptions in A River Rules My Life about life on Mt Algidus station in the 1940s - note that even there it is the cook's job and for the entire staff rather than a housewifely activity), bakers sprang up in even quite small townships in colonial New Zealand and supplied households with pre-made bread. Yes indeed my great grandmother made her own lemon curd and ginger beer and her sponges were legendary (especially to my father, who made the right move of marrying their darling granddaughter). But she didn't make her own bread. Her daughter in law, my grandmother, baked cakes and biscuits and scones and pikelets (the morning and afternoon teas were amazing when my younger uncles were still at home) and she preserved fruit and made jams and jellies. She wasn't yearning for the days of making her own bacon though - her Kenwood mixer and pressure cooker, later the automatic washing machine, the dishwasher and then the microwave, were useful and appreciated. My Dad remembers home made bacon as he also grew up on a farm, and loved it when they started to buy shop bacon - he said it was a lot nicer. The Italians and the Spanish may have had beautiful curing recipes and traditions, but colonial New Zealand was settled by an industrialised and industrialising Great Britain and while diy was functional, it was not necessarily beautiful.

Oooops. Back to the evolutionary origins of surplus. Oh dear. Too tired again to talk about potlatches. Too much ranting. At least my children are asleep now. I'll try again on the evolutionary front later this week.


nova_j said…
*nods* funnily enough the book i'm reading at the mo similarly puts paid to romantic notions of past eras of parenting & childhood..

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