We all have strange rules about what we will and wont splash out on. Blame the way we were brought up and our fear of death
Before the financial crash, people used to explain behavioural economics with the example of the rich man mowing his lawn. Why are you doing that boring task when youre so minted? the hypothetical economist would ask him. Because it costs 10 to get your lawn mowed. OK. If I give you a tenner, will you mow my lawn? Of course not. Money, far from being a fixed, fungible quantity, changes value depending on how you feel about what youre spending it on. After the crash, behavioural got to be shorthand for Why did all those people behave so crazy? But actually the pre-crash question Why are some tenners worth more than others? was more interesting.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with food and drink. I will think nothing, for instance, of having two pints with my mister on an average midweek evening, which is (quick maths) four pints, or 20 quid. I would no more buy a 20 bottle of wine on a Wednesday than I would go to Hawaii for a mini-break. I dont mind at all going out for a fancy kebab irrespective of whether or not its my birthday, yet when a butcher casually lifted 5.95 off me for a lamb shank, I was still talking about it days later (Im still talking about it now). I would never look at the cost of a main course and think: How was it possible to get to 17 quid for a mackerel? I merely accept the restaurants decision. Yet the tag on side dishes sets off my daylight-burglar alarm: 4.50 for spring greens? No, really though. There had better be a tonne of them. At those prices, I want enough spring greens to put me off spring.
Many concepts of value are locked down in childhood, so I think of a steak as barely a domestic food at all, instead a biannual event for when something exceptionally good or bad has happened. I will make meringues rather than throw away an egg white, casually pouring away two hours of relatively concentrated effort for the sake of 36p, tops. I balk at the price of orange juice, but I have no problem spending four times as much on a kombucha drink because its there. Fermentation wasnt a thing in the 80s, unless you were talking about home brewing. I have no mind map for whether or not its a ripoff I just want to see if its tasty.
Put a takeaway menu in front of me and there is no limit to the amount of prawn toast I can afford. Spending 70 getting someone to arrive at the front door with a meal for five seems completely reasonable. Would I pay a person 50, though, to arrive and cook 20 worth of ingredients for us? What do you take me for Rupert Murdoch?
Money arguments in relationships are often proxy battles over more important things such as love, power and control. Food-money is a proxy for smaller conflicts. So my beloved hates it when I use finishing salt where table salt would do, and he says: Are you using my salt in pasta water? And I go: How is this your salt? How about these scissors? Are they your scissors or our scissors? And I hate it when he bulk-buys high-effort food items, since it triggers some pre-verbal feminist defence mechanism against the possibility that my time has been appropriated by the patriarchy. And maybe you will side with him on that, and suggest that he was intending to cook them himself. But youre not the one with four rabbits and 24 kippers in your freezer.
And finally, theres mortality: food can make you forget youre mortal. You see a Creme Egg or a blackberry and it reminds you that, whatever happens, Easter will reappear and so will autumn, that you are in a world of perpetual renewal and if you hitch your destiny to the Creme Egg, you too can live for ever. I will drop a fortune on samphire just because Im pleased to see its time come round again. In the same way, hatred of throwing away food isnt really about the waste, and it definitely isnt about the cost its about fighting the horrifying truth that, whatever your best intentions, everything must perish and the march of decay is relentless. In practice, though, this means keeping tiny bowls of grated carrot that cost less than a mouthful of espresso and eating yoghurt that is a full month out of date and daring it to fizz.
I tried to persuade my kid the other day that an Actimel she had left in her school bag was OK and, when she opened it, it exploded all over both of us. This will be laid down in family lore as evidence of my outrageous tightness, but thats not what it is. Food is its own currency, as emotional as the lira, as stubborn as the deutschmark, as up-on-its-dignity as the pound. Sorry for the 20th-century analogies, but there it is.