Dominique Browning's post today reminded me that for various reasons I had neither completed nor posted this draft I began weeks ago. One day, it being time to begin the annual fruit cake making ritual - an observance much followed in this house, for a Dundee cake with its preponderance of currants over raisins (etymology of currant: Corinth - currants were once known as raisins of Corinth) topped with concentric rings of almonds is a much appreciated accompaniment to the Celt's afternoon cup of tea - I went looking for bulk-buy dried fruit.
What I found, however, was that in the so-called bulk-buy section, my local foodie-foods supermarket's pride in its much-touted organic mission had been subsumed under a welter of small plastic packaging. The more the mission was touted, it seemed to me, the more plastic there was and bulk-buying had been reduced to small plastic packages of a few ounces.
I've been worried for a while about the increasingly larger role plastic packaging plays in my life. I find it virtually impossible to buy food previously packed in glass not packed or shipped in plastic. Even many of the corks of the wine I buy, and I admit it is not that grand a wine, are plastic and seemingly becoming the norm.
It is not just nostalgia that makes me remember the food retailing during my youth - the local, within-walking-distance, butcher, baker, greengrocer, grocer, and I might as well say it, chip shop. My grandmother always kept a separate shopping bag - cloth, homemade and washable, if I remember well - for potatoes which were not today's perfectly washed and processed specimens and usually came with the black earth clinging to the skins. Other vegetables, carrots and parsnips went straight from the weigh-scale to another cloth bag without being wrapped. Brussels sprouts required a paper bag, usually brown. Summer tomatoes (not a redundancy, that word summer, for there were no tomatoes except for a few short weeks in summer) were bagged in paper after weighing and soft fruits came, magically to this child, in mini wooden crates, or punnets we called them. Bread, baked behind the shop, as were the pies, both sweet and savory, was wrapped in paper when sold. Delicate cakes, individual pies - pork, Scotch, nutmeg sprinkled custard, bilberry, and apple and, in season, mince pies, jam sponges, fancies, fairy cakes, Battenbergs, and meringues, were placed carefully, reverently even, in thin card lidded boxes, for they were an expensive and much-planned-for treat to a cotton worker working, as she would have said, "all the hours God sends." Sugar, and this really is years ago, came ready packed in blue paper bags. Milk was, and still is in some parts of Britain, delivered in glass bottles to the doorstep each day, meat from the butcher - and he was a real butcher - was wrapped in "grease-proof" paper, as was cheese, usually locally-made Crumbly or Tasty Lancashire - the best cheese you'll ever find for Welsh Rarebits or to be eaten with a slice of well-fed and matured fruitcake. Crumbly described the soft granularity of the immature cheese and Tasty the sharpness of the firmer matured variety. Of course there was canned food, tinned as we would have said, and the odd thing is, despite finding most not worth her notice, my grandmother bought cream and fruit in a tin.
There was a brief period that Lancashire cheese, much to my delight, was available at the cheese counter, but the problem was, I understood, when eventually it disappeared, it quickly molded under its plastic wrap and there was too much wastage. As well it might, I thought, for cheese if is to be wrapped should be wrapped with paper only. Of course, as far as retailers are concerned paper is not transparent, and if the product, sliced, packaged and visible, sits in an open case, then for hygiene's sake plastic seems to be the obvious choice. Why then, I wonder, are some cheeses, not plastic-wrapped, sitting glamorously, like jewels from the dairy, in closed vitrines? Why then, I wonder, in my cynical way, is "cheese paper" available in its own display atop that vitrine - a display with its tagline suggesting that cheese needs to be treated with respect?
So, in a way, my no-longer-available hometown cheese is to me emblematic of the ills of food packaging in general. The most worrisome aspects of packaging are the chemicals that leech from plastic into food, and the gross amounts of plastic disposed of every day.
What I also went looking for that day, coincidentally, was mayonnaise. As far as I could discover, and this came as such a shock, for it seemed to happen overnight or, at least, between the buying of one jar and the next, mayonnaise, even the kind emblazoned with claims of organic rectitude and imparting this or that, yet-to-be-determined-by-the-FDA, health benefit, is hardly available anymore in glass. I have the impression that despite any qualms consumers might have about transference of harmful chemicals from plastic to fatty foods, nut butter manufacturers also went from using glass to packaging in plastic - a big change that happened, in my experience, this year. I cannot quantify it, but I really have a strong impression that plastic packaging has increased exponentially this year.
I can make some changes and am doing so - fruit and vegetables go straight into the trolley, admittedly on top of my shopping bag, without first going into a plastic bag. I buy the last packed in glass mayonnaise, at least the one I can stand eating. Increasingly I am not buying ready-made foods or other types of prepackaged food, such as frozen vegetables if packaged in plastic, or prewrapped cheese for more reasons than the leaching of chemicals. If peanut or other nut butters are eventually only available in plastic jars then I shall no longer buy them.
That it's all a question of convenience, is undoubted, though whether the convenience of the consumer as is usually suggested, or of the manufacturer, I question. I cannot say I'm totally convinced by the truism or, perhaps, the marketing ploy that convinces us we work harder than our ancestors or that we have less time to enjoy life than they and that convenience packaging is a palliative for our stressful lives.
By the by, anyone ever wonder what the carbon footprint of a blueberry from Peru at this time of year must be?
The photo of a vermeil fruit basket, designed for Tiffany & Co by Van Day Truex, from Tiffany's 20th Century: a portrait of American Style, John Loring, Harry N Abrams. 1997. The small black and white photograph is of the designer and for which I have no photographer's attribution. That will change.