Q. Dear Umbra,
I’ve been in this weird war of the wills with my roommate, whom we’ll call Paul. Paul works a lot and doesn’t have much time to cook, so he buys a rotisserie chicken pretty much every week. And pretty much every week, he eats half the chicken and leaves the other half in the fridge until it goes bad. The few times I’ve asked him about the remaining chicken, he says he’s going to finish it, but he almost never does.
This drives me insane. I can’t stand food waste, and especially when it’s meat. How can I tackle this in a way that doesn’t completely alienate Paul, who, poultry habits aside, I’m fond of?
A. Dear Chickened Out,
Humans are just animals, really, reacting to our little animal fears and desires. We’re afraid of dying, of being alone, of being hungry, of having strangers see us naked! What does this have to do with Paul’s tendency to let chicken rot alongside your mustard containers? EVERYTHING!
Once you start to dig into the psychology of food, you can be so overwhelmed that you either want to never eat again or permanently bury yourself in a heap of pizza rolls because, like, why bother?
In the United States, a fantastically wealthy country, a lot of our reasons for buying food don’t have to do with actual need for nutrition — save for the 12 percent of U.S. households that are food-insecure household in the country. (Let’s take a moment to note how absurd it is that 12 percent of a fantastically wealthy country cannot afford to nourish itself.)
People tend to buy food because it is cheap and/or convenient. We eat for comfort, but also to punish ourselves. If you are relatively financially comfortable, you may also buy food to signal certain things. The Western world is remarkable in that some of us buy food in accordance with purely materialistic goals, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. Paul may buy food that looks nice, healthy, expensive; it is aspirational, because he wants to create the impression that he is those things himself.
That’s how so many well-meaning grocery shoppers end up with kilos of salad greens in the fridge! A queen’s ransom of fresh-pressed juice! Organic, free-range chicken breast! But then they get tired and salads take time to make and the siren call of delivery burritos proves too strong. And then the well-meaning salads and the chicken breast end up in the trash, and lo, one person has wasted 260 pounds of food in a year.
Now, a rotisserie chicken: Is this aspirational? I don’t know. It’s kind of French, which is inherently fancy. You look at a whole rotisserie chicken and you think: “Ahhh. I am in a Parisian bistro. Beautiful! Chic! Delicious!” You look at half a rotisserie chicken and you think: “Hmm. That’s a lot of bones and hacked, uneven poultry flesh. Kind of gross!”
The whole “half-eaten” thing might be partially to blame for Paul’s aversion. I talked to another Paul — Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania — who studies how disgust affects our eating decisions. Food with a bite or several bites taken out of it is extremely unappetizing to a person, even if he is the one who did the biting. I assume Paul isn’t gnawing on a rotisserie chicken, but look, I don’t know his life. But even if he’s dismantling the bird in a civilized knife-and-fork manner, we can agree: It doesn’t look as good half-eaten!
A couple of years ago, I interviewed author Sophie Egan about her book Devoured, which explores the convoluted nature of American food culture. Egan’s thesis is that our food culture is defined by our work culture because Americans spend way more time at work and way less time at home doing things like cooking. It sounds like this is the case with Paul.
So, imagine you are Paul. Say it’s Monday, and you buy this chicken because you want some semblance of home-cooked food that also feels kind of luxe. You have all these dreams of your week: You’re coming home, eating roast chicken and maybe drinking a glass of pinot, because you are a grown man with simple but sophisticated taste. But you’re not going to eat all of it because you’re not a glutton.
But you’re at the office say 10, 11, 12 hours a day. You don’t have much mental real estate left for food, and certainly not for the status of your refrigerator. And your roommate texts you: “Are you going to eat this chicken?” Yes. Yes, you would like to eat the fucking chicken. You would like to have a life where you have a gorgeous roast chicken for dinner every night, but instead, you are microwaving another burrito in the office kitchen at 8 p.m. So you say: “Yes. YES!!!” because you read somewhere that you should always say yes to the life you want! And every night you go home and the chicken looks less and less OK, and that life seems more and more distant.
Soon, the chicken is no longer edible by any standard. And your roommate, an environmental crusader who hates food waste, is kind of quietly mad about it. And you feel even worse!
I’m not saying any of this to make you feel bad, C.O. I just think all of us could stand to exercise a little empathy. So here’s my proposed solution.
Sit down and have a direct conversation with Paul. Tell him how seeing the wasted food makes you feel, but don’t blame it on him. Don’t say: Paul, you did this. Say you understand how his work schedule is, and offer to cook dinner for the two of you once a week. Maybe roast a chicken yourself! Say you’d really like to have that time and space to catch up and have a nice evening, and since Paul is so busy and you pay more attention to what’s going on food-wise and fridge-wise at home, it’s not a huge burden for you to make dinner for the two of you.
This will buy you significant goodwill, and improve any of the lingering animosity in your relationship over the rotting chicken. This way, whenever you see the chicken on the verge of going bad, you can just text Paul — “hey, the chicken is about to go bad, I’m going to make this thing with it, you’re welcome to have some when you come home!” And Paul will think of your beautiful weekly dinner tradition and think about how much he loves his roommate.
And also work toward a culture that doesn’t insist that Paul work 12 hours a day. :) Do it for Paul! And do it for the chicken!