Jeremy Paxman puts columnist to waste

Posted by in February's Magazine

Oh-oh – I’m having a University Challenge dream…
Paxman: Your starter for ten. Which pair of verbs in the English language sound identical, but have different spellings and opposite meanings?
Disembodied Voice: Wheeler, Leith.
Me: Is it ‘raise’ and ‘raze’, Jeremy?
Paxman: Gnnnnyeeeeees. But in future, please use the buzzer provided rather than just shouting ‘BZZZZZZZ’. And don’t address me by name, you impertinent scrote. Now, your main course for twenty, provide an example of a contranym, i.e. a word with one spelling but two opposite meanings.
Me: BZZZZZZZ!!!! ‘Waste’, Jeremy?
Paxman: Gnnnnnnno. Oh come on, that was easy. You could have had ‘fast’, ‘left’, ‘bolt’ or ‘weather’…
Me: With respect, Jeremy, I’d argue that ‘waste’ is a contranym. It can relate either to the frivolous discarding of the useful – money, resources, time – or to the necessary disposal of the useless: human or nuclear waste for instance. They are the same but different – and you don’t get much more contranymical than that.
Paxman: You are the most odious little tit I’ve ever met. Get out of my studio.
Me: Nooooooo!
Disembodied Voice: Oh, it’s a red card! Leith are down to three!

God, that was scary. And the worst part is that Dream Paxo was probably right (though I maintain the red card was harsh). The two meanings of waste are closer than we’d like to admit; or rather, the second is becoming ever less applicable. Nowadays, there’s not much we can’t collect and repurpose if we have the will – so nuclear waste becomes nuclear fuel again, and human waste is turned into biofuel for buses. And our tolerance for more easily avoidable waste is, quite rightly, diminishing fast.


Food waste is a case in point. Inspired by community initiatives, media campaigns – and, in a minority of cases, TV quiz show dreams – we’re undergoing a fundamental change of perspective. Where once we saw ‘dumpster divers’ as criminals, now we point the finger more accurately at retailers who send tonnes of edible food to landfill in the first place. French supermarkets are now required to redistribute rather than discard unsold goods; and until our legislators follow suit, organisations such as the Real Junk Food Project will continue to intercept ‘waste’ food where they can, and highlight the folly of the system where they can’t.

But big business isn’t entirely to blame. Half the UK’s annual food waste happens in our homes, and half of that is food that was fit to eat but we throw away anyway; the rest we just forget about until it goes green and furry. Admit it: you’ve done it. I’ve done it. And on average, it costs each of us £500 every year. Assuming we’re not masochistic enough to toss away that much money on purpose, why the hell are we doing it? And more pertinently, what can we do about it?

Naturally, the web offers a wealth of sage suggestions – to ‘make a shopping list and stick to it’, and ‘only buy what you need’ – all of which would be extremely useful, if only you lived in the 1960s and could buy all your food, weighed out by hand, on your thriving local high street. But if your high street is full of bookies, charity shops and Cash Converters, and the pre-packaged, bulk-discounted fare of the supermarket is your only realistic option, then what do you do? Calmly note the 2-for-1 sticker on those chicken breasts but nobly leave the second pack on the shelf because you don’t ‘need’ it? Buy a kilo bag of carrots; take out the couple you need, and feed the remainder to a passing horse? Or do you Google some chicken and carrot recipes, then shop for the other stipulated ingredients – leading the whole wasteful cycle to repeat itself?

Alternatively, you could close your browser and look closer to home. When we discard food, it’s generally because we can’t work out what to do with it. But anyone who lived (and cooked) through post-war rationing would, out of necessity, have learned to make coherent meals out of disparate leftovers and scraps; so a chat with your gran may well yield more than a thousand food blog recipes ever could. She might show you how to make stock or soup out of almost anything; how to preserve and transform ingredients through curing or pickling; or how that forgotten tin of condensed soup might form the basis of a tasty sauce. And if you don’t have a suitable adviser in your life, read a book by someone of an appropriate generation and mind-set: Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking is an excellent starting point.

As with many apparently modern problems, the best solutions turn out to be age-old. This one even has a pleasingly retro name: I believe we used to call it ‘home economics’. With all this in mind, I’m off to rescue some food from the back of the fridge. And the next time Paxman invades my dreams, I’ll have a better answer for him.

Twitter: @norecipeman

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