Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sugar bag blues

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.   


  1. An apt post as we enter this season of "conspicuous consumption" (a disease if there ever was on). I am always curious about what ends up in other's carts. Never was one for pre-fab foodsm but does take energy to shop with the idea of bringing home the best food with the least amount of absurd packaging. The other afternoon I made a simple vegetable soup and my husband watched me do all of the veggie prep and said afterwards, "Wow, that's why people don't cook." Mind you, I have made this soup for over 30 years, but he is not the cook but the bottlewasher and somehow had lost the connection to slice and dice and what was ladled out for him to eat. And in that very same way we have lost our connection to our food. I am looking forward to teaching him how to cook when he retires. It will be a good lesson for both of us. The very best of the season and happy rome-ings your way.

  2. home before dark, thank you. More and more I'm returning to how I bought and cooked when I was younger. I cannot imagine making soup or any other dish, for that matter, except from scratch.

    I remember the explosion of packaging in the 1960 - the decade when teenagers were invented - and often was enthralled by the package rather than the contents. The medium is the message, I suppose. Marshall McCluhan was right!

    Our best wishes to you and your husband. Like him, I look forward to retirement (assuming he is looking forward to it.)

  3. I could not agree with you more on over-packaging. But I want to point out that wine enthusiasts, and I am no connoisseur, like the plastic stopper better than natural cork because it keeps the wine more stable. But I was horrified when I first saw this in what was considered a good bottle of wine.

  4. You surely must be in my head at the grocery store. Perhaps it is just that I am growing old & vividly remember bright colors of the fruits & vegetables; the lovely, reusable, glass jars; & heavy paper wrappings in a variety of colors wrapping treasures from the local markets.

  5. You post reminds me of reading about the sea of plastic that is as large as Texas in the Pacific ocean. It seems that what starts in the supermarket has a way of ending up there- a terrible realization. Like you, I have noticed that there is a lot of plastic packaging. Here in America, everything is being vacuumed packed. However, I first saw it being done with beets from France. In sum: it's gone global.

    When I was a kid, it was a treat to get an orange for Christmas.

  6. Well said, Blue. I, too, am repulsed by the amount of plastic in packaging--along with every where else it seems. One of the reasons I routinely shop at farmers' markets, and we are blessed to have them much of the year where we live, is that it is possible to do all of one's grocery shopping with only the most minimal amount of plastic wrapping, mostly on the frozen meats we buy out of coolers at the market. We bring our own baskets to the market, which we load up with produce, fresh from the ground, and decidedly NOT wrapped in plastic. And when I frequent the local, independent grocery store in our village, I routinely ask the sales person to NOT use a plastic bag for what I am buying, particularly if it is only a single item (why is it that baggers routinely put only one or two items in a bag?).

    Taking it a step further, we try--as best we can--to live a plastic-free life at Darlington House, and what plastic we (must) have we endeavor to recycle whenever possible. Not only is it much more aesthetically pleasing, but environmentally friendly, too.

  7. The Devoted Classicist, thank you. I had only read negative comments about the plastic stoppers - one example was someone had left such a stopper in a glass of wine and the results on the wine were appalling. Extreme case, perhaps, but illuminating, nonetheless. My objection is that is it yet another, in my opinion, unnecessary use of plastic.

  8. BWS, thank you. I too remember differences between what we can buy now and what we bought back then. I remember the change to uniformly sized tomatoes (easier for shipping, of course) and apples that were not massive, wooly and tough-skinned. I think it was the lack of certain things that made one eat well in winter especially is one had used those empty glass containers, as I do, for chutneys, jams and jellies - and make the slow transition to spring such a pleasure. However, the world we knew is gone, suffocating under a welter of plastic.

  9. Voice Talk, thank you. I agree about the global nature of plastic usage whether in the form of packaging or, as you say, the island of plastic floating in the Pacific. I hadn't realized it was as large as Texas. Frightening! I'll be interested to see what it is like in Italian supermarkets when we get there this Christmas. I suspect as bad as anywhere else.

  10. Yes, why is everything wrapped in plastic? I get strange stares at my grocery store when I not only bring shopping bags but bags for produce items as well. Why this dependence on plastic?!

  11. Mmmm. You do seem bent and determined to make us all hungry these days. I will ignore the plastic wrappers and revel in your sweet and savory references -- the mince pies, jam sponges, fancies, fairy cakes, Battenbergs, and meringues, crumbly and tasty Lancashire, well-fed and matured fruitcake. Que des gourmandises ! And I don’t know what everything last thing is precisely, but it sounds heavenly all together.

    You can still live an unplastified life in France, but for how long? I can’t say. Over 20 years I have seen many changes, but some of the biggest have come since l’Europe has decided what should be in the shops. It’s true that Uncle Sam went largely unrepresented in grocery stores. Plastic is of course ever present in the super markets, but the real markets and specialty shops are never far off. The French haven’t been known for being the most ecological people on the planet, but then it’s true that the small habits here of carrying a basket to do errands, using cloth napkins, eating fruits and vegetables in season and even ‘cleaning your plate’ along with a tendency to be attentive in using water and electricity, are all continued ways that make sense in that direction.

    Convenience is a notion that deprives us of other satisfactions at times.
    Somehow, I feel you will be making your own mayonnaise soon.

  12. If I may offer one small bright spot, the District of Columbia recently instituted a 5 cent tax on plastic bags. Overnight, it seems, people have have begun changing their ways. Now, if we can just get rid of all those plastic food containers! Ugh.

    And furitcake. Glad to know there is another soul out there who loves it as much as I do.

  13. I always associated this onslaught of plastic with the culture's horrid obsession with "cleanliness," never forgetting napalm, of course (Dow Chemical, enchanting via chemistry); but now that I find that beets have been condomed in France, I have to wonder. A frightening post all around; you can scarcely get a dog lead anymore that fastens with leather and brass (I recommend stocking up, while you can), and when you reckon that all our snow shovels are plastic and all our broom bristles are plastic and tragically nearly all our combs are plastic, you have to think of letting another species run the place for a while.

  14. Of course you make a very valid point about plastic and waste. Sadly much of it due to one reason alone - too many people in the world.

    My brother is fastidious about recycling rubbish, (which means used items have to separated for disposal). I am quite in agreement about that, but it means a kitchen can resemble a sorting office, and that does not appeal to me. Somehow if we could devise a way of making going green more visually pleasing, it might be possible to have many more converts. (Do you ever watch "Living with Ed", with Ed Begley Jnr? Great ideas, but the contraptions and devices were not devised with aethetics in mind.)

  15. Hello, Reggie. I too take my own shopping bags with me each time I go shopping for food - admittedly made of recycled plastic. As to your point about baggers, I've seen customers walk out with five items spread over three plastic bags. As far as paper is concerned, my local FoodieFoods routinely double bags the paper bags they replaced plastic with and also, it seems to me, prolific with the number they use in relation to the items being bought. The other item of waste that seems to be growing is the use of rubber bands for securing "convenience" packaging. Waste, waste, waste!

    Luckily our buildings have recycling bins for paper, metal, glass and plastic, and cardboard boxes in each of the garages. My ideal would to get to a point where I don't have to use them but that would mean giving up wine in bottles - a step too far, I feel.

  16. le style et la matiere, thank you. I'm glad France has remained less plastified than here. I do try not to acquire it but it has become increasingly difficult for even the small labels stuck on apples and pears are now plastic!

    Paper napkins are a non-starter in this house, not even for cocktails. Quotidian napkins are cotton and grande dinner and cocktails napkins are linen. Paper towel rarely gets into the shopping bag - I'd rather use a washable cloth to clean with. I look around my living room as I write and the only plastic items are the Apple wireless apparatus, the computer cords, my reading glasses frames and my iPhone.

    Make my own mayonnaise? I've done it, enjoyed making it, especially aoli, but somehow that big bowl in the fridge (no plastic wrap to cover, just a plate) is much more worrisome in terms of waistline than is a jar that has a lid. However, given that the mayonnaise that remains on sale in glass is canola oil based which is not very satisfactory, I really am considering making my own.

  17. Hello, Janet. The only way I can see getting rid of plastic food containers, at least in our own lives, is to stop buying ready-made food. It means more work - food from scratch, etc, and very careful planning before heading to the store. The other day, for the gratin dauphinoise I mentioned I bought cartons of cream which normally one would pull one side apart to open - yesterday I noticed they had now acquired plastic screw-top spouts.

    Do you make your own fruitcake?

  18. Laurent, thank you. I agree, it is astonishing how much plastic there is in use and despite the so-called recycling of it continues to be produced in massive quantities and in respectable ways. I use the word respectable advisedly. I wonder if we interior designers could do without lucite furniture, for example, or faux antlers made of resin? How about molded urethane picture frames dutch-leafed to look like gold? Could we live without foam filling for seat cushions and mattress tops? We once did.

  19. Columnist, thank you. Luckily I live in a building that has recycling bins in the garages levels and in our flat I keep the recyclables in a large kitchen drawer until I have enough to take out with me of a morning. My plan is to reduce the amount of recycling going out of here and allow the drawer to be used for its original purpose - pan storage. A large drawer or cupboard shelf is easy to give over to temporary storage of recyclables, but given the potential for infestation, all has to be scrupulously clean. My reducing our use of plastic will not, I fear, stop the Texas-sized plastic island in the Pacific from growing any further.

    I have never seen an Ed Begley show? I'm not sure it's even available on our local cable. I'll check, though.

  20. Half mad I'm driven by the wasteful packaging I am increasingly forced to buy along with my food. We know so much better yet still waste so much