We fritter away a humungous amount of food when malnutrition haunts parts of the country, and that is hard to swallow indeed

The mats have been rolled out, the plantain leaves set, and we children take our places, each striving to sit next to her favourite cousin. I am 10 and I’m waiting to be served yet another of those wedding lunches laid out in the long, narrow verandah of our ancestral house. Male relatives appear, rapidly dispensing food in ritualistic sequence. They plonk down empty steel tumblers, fill them with jugs of warm, jeera-flavoured water, and tote steaming buckets from which side-dishes are deposited in small heaps — minor players that await the entry of the star: rice. Sambar, buttermilk and curds whizz in and out, and it’s time to clear the way for payasams one and two (and three if we’re lucky).

No drinking water during the meal and no sweet until we’ve finished every morsel: those are the rules. Anyone caught violating them gets barked at by a supervisory aunt or uncle; tears and sulks are not uncommon in these circumstances. I perform my usual trick of hiding what I don’t like or can’t finish under a large pappadam. When our leaves are sternly inspected for leftovers, I can get away with leaving behind only one item instead of the four concealed beneath it, and can therefore boldly stake my claim to sweet heaven. After the guests have all eaten, another mighty row of leaves is laid out — outside. The gates are opened and a long line of waiting mendicants troop into the compound to sit on the bare ground. The cooks dilute the curries and payasams before they serve them, since there usually isn’t enough left to go around, but there’s always ample rice for every hungry stomach. The monstrous cooking pots and urns are empty by afternoon. Nothing goes to waste.

“Waste not, want not.” The adage, simple and pithy as most adages tend to be, harks back to my childhood and rings in my ears quite frequently these days. Do not waste anything today, so that tomorrow you are not left wanting — a sentiment reflecting a frugality that’s been consigned to the past (at least by middle class India). Of all the kinds of wasteful behaviour we see around us, dumping food is the most criminal. It has been on the rise ever since our domestic celebrations grew larger, grander and more impersonal. The venue of festive meals has long since moved from home to rented hall. No more relatives scrupulously monitoring resources. No thought for the poor in your neighbourhood because, in the first place, the function doesn’t take place in your neighbourhood but in whichever locality you manage to obtain a hall. Once you make a down payment to a caterer or proprietor, your personal involvement in the proceedings is diminished. Leftovers are the least of your concerns.

On the face of it, wastage appears to escalate when you substitute the extravagant, multi-cuisine buffet for the traditional oota. The buffet is in vogue nowadays and is little more than a display of opulence by the host (can you really savour 80 dishes?). I picked up an interesting bit of info from a friend. Sometimes the host pays per head, and this means per plate — quite literally. If you decide to nibble on some pasta and then take a fresh plate for curd-rice, the host pays for two plates! At Rs. 1,500 a plate that may be the most expensive curd-rice in the world you’ve just eaten.

Wagging a finger at food wastage, and buffets in particular, is a group of scientists from the University of Agricultural Sciences. Their survey has revealed that the kalyana mantapas in Bangalore, of which there are over 500, discard Rs. 340 crore worth of food every year. Let us remember that there are two kinds of leftover food: the uneaten and the unused. What remains uneaten on the plate is the guest’s responsibility, not the host’s. (Soiled food, by the way, is often sold to piggeries.) As for unused food, which perhaps accounts for the bulk of the waste, don’t you suppose the caterer’s natural business instincts would kick in? Would he not be tempted to profit from the remains of a feast? Scientists are not detectives; they may not have physically traced the unused-food chain, and may have depended, instead, on the figures provided by the wedding halls. Maybe the contractor carts away untouched food and quietly recycles it, or re-sells it to lowly ‘hote-lus’, I don’t know. Naturally, he is not going to admit this even on pain of death. In fact I secretly hope that my suspicions are well-founded. The alternative would be to believe that we fritter away a humungous amount of food when malnutrition haunts parts of the country, and that is hard to swallow indeed.

Do-gooders have made sporadic attempts to collect unused food from wedding halls and take it away in chilled containers to be distributed in a few slums. Unless this is done on a mass scale by liaising with every rented hall in the city, it’s not going to make a dent in hunger and deprivation. But the figure 34 followed by eight zeroes continues to niggle me — oh come on, can it be? Have we really turned into a society that accumulates rubbish-mountains of perfectly edible food? Part of my brain refuses to accept it. And part of it fears it may be true.

(Send your feedback to ckmeena@gmail.com)

Keywords: Food wastageissuebuffets