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Variety is the coriander of life

March 30, 2013

As part of a spring clean this weekend (and inspired by our recent acquisition of a Henry hoover, which frankly deserves a blog post all of its own) my husband and I decided it was high time to purge our cupboards and drawers of all unnecessary, useless, out of date or non-essential items. He took the ‘blue’ cupboards – the engine room, his ‘man drawer’, the terrifying space where household cleaners are kept, which resembles some sort of nuclear fallout zone – and I got the ‘pink’ ones – the entire kitchen, and my shoe drawer. The problem with living on a boat (well, one of) is that if it’s not condensating, it’s rusting, and if it’s doing one of those two things, anything in the near vicinity will be going mouldy. Seven pairs of algae-encrusted shoes later, I gave up on the footwear, and began to tackle the kitchen, where I found a similar story. The backs of my kitchen cupboards, it seems, have become a repository for all those foods that seemed like a good idea at the time, but have been consistently pushed aside in favour of the more traditional foodstuffs. So it is that the Japanese noodles, Italian breadsticks, oyster sauce and dried chickpeas are all crammed into one steadily going-off corner, hidden behind tins of baked beans, curry paste and (I hang my head in shame) strawberry Angel Delight. Dried spaghetti and packets of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes laugh mocklingly at the never-opened orzo rice and hesitantly-sniffed-at organic muesli. It seems, despite my good intentions, and flashes of inspiration whilst perusing the ‘speciality ingredients’ aisle in the local Waitrose, the beluga preserved lemons – purchased for some fervently-imagined Moroccan tagine – always lose the battle against the tinned tomatoes for the infinitely easier spag bol. Even our tastes in curry never waver – if I buy Madras, Balti and Rogan Josh, the Madras will be long gone and a replacement bought before barely a tablespoon has been taken from the others.

But it appears this is not just a lazy-Davies problem, but one experienced by many. Scientists have named it the ‘Diversification bias’, whereby our imaginations tell us that we want to try lots of different things, but in reality our palates and instincts favour just a few. If we go and buy our lunch on a daily basis we will buy an apple or a banana, and maybe a cherry yoghurt. If we buy all our weekly shopping in one hit, we’ll buy apples, bananas, oranges and a pineapple, a multi-pack of differently flavoured yoghurts and some cereal bars. And at the end of the week we’ll have left some shrivelled oranges, a slightly-squidgy pineapple, three fruits of the forest yoghurts and the cereal bars will have lost themselves down the back of the sofa. And we’ll berate ourselves for being so unimaginative, chuck out the pineapple, and repeat the process the following week.

I have noticed this quite a bit, particularly when my local supermarket goes on one of its ‘buy three and get seven free’ jollies (it generally coincides with a junior member of the purchasing department getting over-excited about asparagus), and I feel obliged to buy an assortment of fruit and vegetables that I don’t want or need because it would be stupid not to. Take herbs, for example. My husband and I love coriander, and will put it in virtually anything, given the opportunity and minimal quantities of alcohol. (Coriander mojito anyone?) On a BOGOF offer, I should just get two packs of coriander. But it seems so… samey. So I’ll buy a pack of dill or tarragon instead, and then watch in dismay as the weeks pass and what was once a heady, aromatic fluffy-leaved potentially-Michelin-worthy fish accompaniment morphs into a heady, aromatic contender for the Turner Prize, its sloopy pondy barely-bagged gunk rendering the salad drawer in the fridge a no-go zone.

My fruit bowl at this very moment contains a pineapple (starting to look a little sad) and a bunch of cherry tomatoes, which aren’t actually cherry tomatoes but have some fancy name that encouraged Tesco to add an extra £2 per kilo, and me to buy them, and which whilst very nice just aren’t an apple or a banana. And they’re only in the fruit bowl because I had to throw the salad drawer out.

So why do we insist on doing this to ourselves? Why can’t we accept that we like what we like, and that if we are quite content doing the same thing every day – going to work, watching our favourite TV programmes, supporting the same sports teams – why can’t we apply the same rule to our eating habits? We can still be imaginative and try something new, without attempting a culinary round-the-world trip in seven days, taking in paella by way of sushi with a fajita inbetween. Although there are over 30,000 types of vegetable and even more fruits, we don’t need to try and cram them all on to one grocery list. Or indeed, to the landfill where they will inevitably end up (by way of industrial-strength gloves and a peg on the nose, and copious quantities of household cleaners to tackle the stains left behind). Speaking of which, I must see if my husband has unearthed the max-strength fungicide from his cupboard yet; I seem to recall buying some shiitake mushrooms for Chinese New Year…

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