Monday, May 20, 2013

Bounty Meditations: The Compost Bucket

Our compost bucket speaks to me every day.  And usually it's not very flattering.

Our compost bucket is one of those things I find myself taking care of whenever possible instead of letting anyone else touch it.  Because it's in that bucket that my different upbringing is pointed out.  I don't consider myself a wasteful person, but I don't eat the core of the apple.  I don't eat the rind of the watermelon, or the skin of the mango.  My child doesn't eat the tooth-breaking seeds found in guava.  And he likes the skin cut off his pears.  If I humored him, he'd still have me peeling his grapes. Burnt food in the bottom of the pot?  Put it in the compost. Unappetizing five day old leftovers?  Compost.

Our gardener's family, in contrast, has almost no compost.  Though they will throw a stem out the door here and there at times, they waste nothing.  I remember my horror the first time I let my housekeeper make us a meal called "chicken bones." This common Shona dish is made when the leftover chicken bones from a meal are gathered from everyone’s plates, rinsed, and stored for the next day.   They are then boiled in a pot with spinach or rape (both large tough greens here) and an (MSG laden) powdered chicken seasoning.  The dish is served, chicken bones and all, with Sadza.  One has to stop chewing and pull sharp pieces of bone out of one's mouth to eat it.  It is considered a special treat, as the amount of meat consumed in the Shona diet can be sporadic, dependent upon the economic circumstances of the family. Tasty, but I admittedly stopped at cracking the bones open to suck out the marrow.

On the contrary, we have cooked for our housekeeper and gardener a number of times.  We made a large family dinner for our gardener’s family one evening, and sat around our dinner table chatting as the gardener’s two children, Shown and Allister ("Lilly"), ate with Jonas on the floor.  Jonas (usually a good eater) had taken four bites, declared he was done, and had run away to play, leaving his full plate on the floor.  Meanwhile, five year old Shown ate a full two giant plates before asking his parents to be excused.  Little Lilly, though, methodically ate three plates of food with his chubby two year old fingers.  Every time he asked for more, I heaped his plate full and watched his eyes sparkle as I set the plate back down in front of him.  It was way too much for a two year old, but I wanted him to feel free to eat as much as he liked without being shy about asking for more.  Showing my love by overfeeding someone?  Yep.  That's pretty much my style.

Partially into his third plate, though, Lilly slowed down.  Suddenly he started bawling, hysterically wailing a number of Shona words I did not understand. It was alarming; Lilly was in a great deal of pain. I looked at the gardener's wife quizzically as she rubbed his stretched tummy.  "I'm sorry, Madame," she had apologized, embarrassed. "Allister is crying because he cannot clear his plate.  He has tried as hard as he can but now he is in pain."

"You have to eat what you are given," Shown chimed in. "That's the rule!"

I looked at my child's rotting plate in the corner and embarrassment washed over me.  Jonas would eat a snack later, for sure, when it was convenient for him.  Whenever Jonas is hungry, he gets food.  Meanwhile I had made Lilly sick with my lack of understanding.  

Taught from an early age, it is a truly impressive characteristic of many Shona people in my country. Waste not, want not.  Clear your plate.  Eat when you can get it, even if it makes you sick.  Be grateful for calories.  It's a stark contrast to where I come from.   I come from a land of abundance, where the focus is on not eating too much.  Where obesity troubles more people than starvation.  Where diet obsessions like limiting calories and fats and carbs and any other latest craze originate.  Where we try to speed up our metabolism so we can eat more.  Where we make light hearted jokes about the strange things our Depression-era relatives are willing to eat.  Where I have complained about my propensity to overeat before polishing off my child's plate. Where, patting myself on the back for self control, I have scraped Jonas' half-eaten plate into the compost bucket.

That horrible compost bucket.  If only it didn't speak so loudly.