When I was growing up, the concept of recycling was present in my life, but it looked nothing like the current sustainability movement.
My parents were immigrants. They were thrifty in the way many immigrants are: they bought food in bulk and froze it. Their second-hand freezer was bought with money they’d saved.
They also owned a fruit farm and so auxiliary groceries were purchased carefully, with an eye to making things last.
Nothing was wasted. Bones were used to make soup stock; unusable vegetables too. Slaughtered animals were purchased whole and my brother and I would spent at least two Saturdays a year, with my parents, wrapping meat and making sausages. Beans and plums were frozen; cherries and peaches were canned. So were pickles, peppers, dill and garlic.
There was more: winter food was kept in our fruit cellar. In that room a sauerkraut barrel stood among bushels of apples, beets and potatoes. In a neighbouring meadow, my father kept bees and we made our own honey.
As I write about this, I feel an aching nostalgia for the way our family lived then. It’s true that a wizened apple probably doesn’t taste as good as a deep-fried cherry pie, and pickled peppers weren’t in vogue back then, but I find it sad that the old ways of preparing food seem to have been lost here in North America.
The pattern of buying and disposing of commodities, especially household commodities, has become part of that epidemic of heightened velocity, that speedy way of living that has us careening around corners on our way to work, swearing at the slower drivers in front of us and laughing at websites with the improbable names of “I want to punch you in the back of the head”–a comical nod to brisk walkers who are frustrated by their slower peers.
I’m guilty of this high velocity living. I am one of those hyper individuals who gets things done tout suite and expects everyone else to do the same. It’s wrong of me, I know, and occasionally, I will get the very clear message from someone that my attitude isn’t welcome. I give myself some credit, however. I usually listen and make an effort to slow down.
But this gets me back to recycling. It’s my belief that a lot of hidden recycling is going on and we need to bring it out into the open. And why is it hidden? It’s because the immigrants who are efficient with their resources are usually secretive about it. To them — as it was to my family — extreme thrift signals a lack of financial resources, a penny-pinching attitude that is the antithesis of the North American success story. In short, this very good habit is something they want to hide.
And what they’re hiding from is a very glib and casual attitude toward spending. $140 for a pair of Nike trainers? Shrug. $6 for a cafe latte at Starbucks? Shrug. $140 a month for an iPhone account? Well, that’s just the cost of being hip and plugged in these days.
Needless to say, these attitudes just didn’t exist at my house when I was growing up. My parents were far too worried about money.
So it seems that if an immigrant family is being extremely resourceful with what they have, it’s a shameful matter best kept behind closed doors. After all, these people don’t want to look as if they “just got off the boat.” It’s precisely that fear that provides fodder for some of Canada’s most successful comedians, comedians like Russell Peters and Sandra Shamas.
I first saw Shamas in Toronto the 1980s. I was thrilled to be at her show because she was one of the first performers whose comedy reflected my life. One of her skits involved a trip she and her Lebanese mother and grandmother took to Woolworth’s.
Shamas’s skit involved a florid depiction of her mother attempting to haggle with a rather patrician salesclerk. She described, in agonizing detail, her mortification as events unfolded: her grandmother was pushing to get a bargain while the salesclerk, keenly indignant, took her frustration out on the young Shamas.
I believe Shamas’ show was a hit because she was finally mentioning the unmentionable. She was riotously funny, but she was also describing the shame first-generation Canadians feel when their elders behave as if they’ve just arrived from the old country. I’m including a video of her telling the same story here, although in this version she discusses it in a far more serious way.
These fears about not fitting in are real. Some European friends of mine, living in a tony part of Montreal, also kept a barrel of sauerkraut in their basement. (Fruit cellars don’t seem to exist anymore.) The funny part of their story was this: when the sauerkraut was finished and they needed to drain the residue from the barrel, they hesitated to do it in the house because they knew the smell would linger for days. So they took it out to the street and emptied it into the nearest storm drain.
The looks of distaste and contempt they got from the neighbours in their upscale district were enough to get them to schedule it at midnight the following year. My friend laughed as she told me the story of sneaking out to do this, but the motives behind that particular midnight run were clear: they didn’t want to be judged by their neighbours. There was shame involved.
But it’s precisely those old country traditions we should be looking at closely right now. We should try to understand why it is that immigrants come to this country and do so well so quickly, and we should be emulating their habit of living more communally and using resources more efficiently.
When my parents had a pig slaughtered they used everything right down to the brains. As a teenager this didn’t appeal and it still doesn’t, but our tendency to create so much unnecessary waste is equally unpalatable.
For example, I have a hard time throwing away unused food. I feel guilty when I’ve got meat, chicken or fish in my fridge that’s gone off because I didn’t use it in time. Why? I remember being an eight-year old and cutting a slice of bread with a pair of scissors. My mother saw me and what followed was a stern lecture about how disrespecting food was a sin. We weren’t a religious family, so I remember the word and the incident very clearly.
Having lived through WW2, my mother’s attitude toward food and waste was stark and unequivocal: nothing went into the garbage. We weren’t composters, but any food we didn’t eat was fed to our animals or thrown out into the orchard. If birds or other wildlife didn’t eat it, it would biodegrade on its own; it would return to the earth.
There should be less shame involved in resource efficiency of this sort. Immigrants in Canada do well because they have the right ideas about material goods.
And fresh off the boat or not, they still have a lot to teach us.