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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Ramadan is the perfect time for some reflection

Deborah Williams says that everyone should take Ramadan as an opportunity to reflect on food consumption and help those in need
The eating habits of the developed world have been the subject of much commentary, most of which is critical. Jeff Topping / The National
The eating habits of the developed world have been the subject of much commentary, most of which is critical. Jeff Topping / The National

When I was a little girl, my mother regularly packed our school lunches with something called “Space Food Sticks”. They were supposedly food that astronauts ate, although what they were actually made of, I have no idea. Each stick was about as thin around as a finger, individually wrapped in a foil sleeve, and tasted vaguely sweet, with the consistency of a Tootsie-Roll candy. Did my mother think that they were somehow good for us because hey, if the astronauts ate them, they had to be healthy? Or was she just exhausted from wrangling three children all day every day, and tossed these intergalactic goodies into the lunch sacks in hopes of forestalling the inevitable complaints about whatever else she had included?

The other morning, as I pressed a spoon against the seam of a tube of “crescent rolls”, I remembered those Space Food Sticks. Both are things that my grandmother wouldn’t really recognise as food, which is one way that the American social critic Michael Pollan suggests that we measure our eating habits. What would my grandmother make of the fact that I pop open a tube, roll out some “dough” that’s been perforated into triangles that I separate, sprinkle with chocolate chips, and then roll into little mounds? She would marvel at the miracle of insta-dough, and probably sneak a chocolate chip (that’s something she’d recognise), but I doubt she would like the finished product: a chocolate-filled roll that has about as much relationship to pain au chocolate as a hot-dog bun to a baguette.

I make these rolls perhaps for the same reason my mother fed us Space Food Sticks: my children like them, they’re easy, they’re fast. In a household with two teenaged boys whose appetites are insatiable, being able to produce vast quantities of food quickly is the difference between living with humans and living with ravenous wolves. My rolls in a tube produce “home-cooked” bread in about 15 minutes, and while they’re cooking the house smells wonderful. Even so, I know that my rolls are a pale, puffy imitation of the real thing; I serve them with an internal side-dish of nostalgia mixed with guilt.

The eating habits of the developed world have been the subject of much commentary, most of which is critical. We eat too much, we eat too fast and faddishly, we throw too much away. Just this week, for example, an article in The National stated that this country has a high rate of food waste and that the amount of food waste rises during Ramadan.

In Dubai last year, 1,850 tonnes of food were disposed of – not into hungry bellies but into rubbish sites. This year, Dubai launched the country’s first food bank to reduce food wastage.

One source of food waste, at least in the Emirates, are the all-you-can-eat iftar buffets, lavish displays that could easily feed entire villages several times over. Anyone who has been to these dinners, or to the ubiquitous brunch buffets, has probably asked the same question: where does it all go afterwards, and why can’t those in need be invited to join the feast? Some of the food gets donated through the efforts of organisations such as the Red Crescent’s Saving Grace, but too much of it gets tossed.

I’m not a Muslim, but I am always moved by the commitment and rigour required for those who fast during Ramadan, and I’ve come to appreciate the slow and gentle pace of daily life during this month.

We don’t fast, but as I think about my tube-rolls, and about food waste, it seems like maybe this month we should reflect on our own consumption.

We can stock the Ramadan fridges that have popped up around town, and maybe I’ll get the ravenous wolves – my children – to help me bake bread. My grandmother would approve.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

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