23 . 08 . 17
The Joy of Improvising

Being given piles of beautiful rhubarb and having to figure out what to do with it for days on end…Writing and image by Julia Georgallis

Recently, I catered on a holiday glampsite (Designers on Holiday in Sweden) for campers who liked nice food but had small budgets. The way that I combated this was using a combination of bulk buying from cheap outlets and being gifted home grown and high quality meat and veg by sponsors and the local community (which was very nice indeed). The problem with this was that I couldn’t plan – I was cooking with whatever people threw at me or what happened to be on offer. And I had to make these things go a very long way. It kind of flexed my brain muscles – I had to use the bit of my brain for making do and mending, the bit that makes me feel like I can count on myself to survive for the next time there’s a nuclear winter and I will be forced to live on tins of Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference tuna and some frozen peas. It’s the improvisation station of our brains.

For me, there is a real joy in improvising. In making something out of nothing. In turning something meagre into a banquet. I take an intense amount of satisfaction from managing to totally empty the fridge using the last few ingredients to scrape together a meal for whoever might have unexpectedly dropped by for dinner. A need to improvise can arise because something has gone wrong (the jelly didn’t set, the cake didn’t rise, the pasta is overcooked and stuck together, you burnt the last piece of toast in the house), so we need to save the day (or the dinner) with our quick thinking.  Unfortunately though, for more than most, the motivation behind improvisation is because there is simply not enough food. Cooking with very little however has given rise to some of the most delicious meals on the planet, to meals we often refer to as ‘poor food’ (I’m never really sure with how OK I am with that expression, by the way). Improvising also comes about, as it did at the camp site and as it does many a time in the UK, when we find ourselves at the opposite end of the spectrum – with a full fridge and not enough time to eat it. We might have bought too much food because we went shopping when we were hungry or we ended up going out every night to eat or we panic bought or got roped into buying all those aubergines because they were on offer. It’s a weird conundrum that we seem to face – 8.4 million families don’t have enough to eat, yet 7.3 million tonnes of food gets wasted each year*. Both of these dilemmas, however, require the same problem solving, the same need to think on the spot to avoid wasting every morsel of food. We could argue that if we planned things a bit better, we might not have this problem. People living below and way above the poverty line would be so much better off if we only organised our fridges and our stomachs. But this just isn’t plausible… Because we humans also improvise in pretty much every other area of our lives really. Last minute animals, we muddle through, making things up as we go along, doing with what we’ve got, generally not planning anything until it’s too late then making it work when it has to. It won’t change. So let’s just use it as an exercise to expands our brains, as well as our stomachs, for the better.