A couple of weeks ago, the son of friends arrived in San Francisco. Bo, just twenty years old, was raised in a small town in Northern Germany. He made the trip because he wants to improve his English.
“You must be hungry,” I said when he arrived at our Berkeley house. I’ve welcomed many visitors over the years and always have something prepared: soup, salad, veggies. Transatlantic travelers want to eat healthy and light.
“Sure I’ll have some.” He didn’t sound very excited.
“You got good food on the plane?”
“I did. And on top of that, I’d brought some Stullen just in case there wouldn’t be enough.” Stullen are the German equivalent of sandwiches but they have only one layer of ingredient between two slices of bread: either cheese or ham or sliced cucumbers. Not all of them.
“Just before we landed someone told me I couldn’t take any food through customs. So I ate everything I'd packed before we landed.“
So German, I thought. All the Germans I know eat up the food that’s on their plate: my sister and brothers, my nieces, my friends. My stepfather sponges up the last trace of gravy with a piece of bread and my father used to make a game of licking our plates clean (sorry, Ms Manners). My husband often finished our daughters’ meals because he couldn’t stand the idea of letting food go to waste. Now we compost food scraps, so he’s loosened up a little.
Germans have a collective memory of hunger because it has been woven into their history. Even though they eat very well today, the wars of the past linger in family stories of deprivation. The stern admonitions of my elders still ring in my head: Man isst was auf den Tisch kommt - You eat what is served. That meant you finished whatever you – or someone else – had put on your plate. And you better not complain about it because having a full plate was, first and foremost, a privilege. When Germans became prosperous once again in the sixties, adults rebuked children who picked at their Rotkohl and Kartoffeln (red cabbage and potatoes) with a reminder of this privilege: Denk an die armen Inderkinder – think of the poor children of India (who would love to have what you don’t want). This ill-guided attempt at empathy linked the food on my plate to guilt. I learned that all food had value and if it found its way onto my plate, I was responsible for eating it.
One of the first things I learned about Americans was that they always leave a little – or a lot – of something on their plates. My teacher told me so when I announced to him that my family was emigrating to the United States. “Amerikaner think it’s bad manners to clean their plate and they don’t care that food is thrown away.” I was shocked. But I adjusted quickly. It felt liberating not to have to finish every last bite and I became accustomed to leaving a morsel of goulash, a bit of rice, dots of peas. When I returned to my native country as a student, Germans in the East and the West frowned at me when I did that. Spoiled American. Careless American.
In today’s Germany, the explicit admonitions to finish what’s on your plate have faded. But the value bestowed on a meal is much the same: leaving food on a plate is considered an affront to the cook who has prepared the meal. But even more: it insults the gift that food is and it disregards the privilege of having something to eat.
Recently, I ate at a small restaurant near a Berkeley neighborhood park. It was a sunny day, so I sat outside. After gobbling up my hamburger, I didn’t have room for the skinny French fries. Savoring a moment of quiet contentment, I heard the familiar sound of a shopping cart rattling across a sidewalk. A homeless man pushed his load of bottles and cans past my table. His blue stocking cap was rolled up high above his ears and his beard stubble was growing in white. He looked at the pile of French fries on my plate.
“Man, don’t throw that away.” He said it in a matter of fact voice without slowing his pace. How did he know that I wasn’t going to eat the fries? How many half-eaten meals did he see on his rounds? Was he hungry? Thoughts tumbled in my head. Should I offer him my leftovers? That didn’t seem right, I should buy him his own meal. Too late, the man had disappeared behind a clump of trees, his cart jangling as he made his way towards the park’s trash bins. I asked the waitress for a take home container. But it just languished in the fridge. Who likes old French fries?
Don’t throw that away. The man’s words came back to me when Bo told me about the Stullen he ate before deplaning. In the same situation, I’ve tossed out “just in case” apples and bread and cheese that I took on a flight. I didn’t eat them because I wasn’t hungry. Throwing food away has become part of my daily routine, a mindless gesture of clearing from my life what I no longer want.
How had it happened that I so easily dispose of perfectly good food? Somewhere along the line, my sense of being liberated from strict rules of eating had turned into carelessness. Was it a consequence of living in a country where 33 million tons of food are wasted every year? Not a consequence – I’d become part of the problem. Obviously, I’ve left my German upbringing behind.
Food Guru Michael Pollan sets out wonderful 'food rules' in his Eater’s Manual. #77 is the only one that rankles me: leave something on your plate. Why?
I could be mindful about my appetite. I could choose moderation. When I do that, it is easy to finish what’s on my plate.