There was a widow in a famine who took in a prophet even though all she had was a small jar of oil and a small bowl of flour. And yet, there was enough for three years of famine. It was a miracle.
On Sunday, I was listening to a food show on the radio. The guest ran olive oil tastings from his store and suggested the listeners at home find olive oil in the cupboard and taste along with him. Pour it in a small cup, he suggested. Hold it in your hand to warm it. Inhale deeply the cut-grass smell. Pull the oil into your mouth in a quick gulp and then swallow.
I found the silver metal can of olive oil we had received in exchange for a litre of maple syrup when we visited Florence last year. It was the olive oil that had introduced me to how good oil can be. We had used it sparingly but it seemed to last and last and I often thought of Elijah and the widow. Maybe it would never run dry.
Olive oil can last up to two years, the radio guest said, depending on how it is stored. We stored ours in the back of a dark kitchen cupboard.
I took my oil can out. It had always reminded me of a motor oil can. I loved that rugged efficiency - the contrast to the fancy-schmancy bottles in many stores. Their effort went into the oil itself. It was cold-pressed extra-virgin greenness. The woman who traded with us explained that it should never be ruined by mixing it with vinegar. You did that with inferior oils. This one would be best drizzled over bread with a sprinkle of salt on top. Oh, she was right.
I poured the oil into an egg cup and held it in my hands to warm it. And I looked into its depths and there was a trickle of what looked like motor oil suspended in the green liquid. I smelled it - it smelled fine. I dipped a finger - it tasted fine. But I was still dubious. I got a larger glass bowl and poured more. More motor oil. I suspect the can had actually rusted or something had fallen in and gone mouldy.
I poured the rest of the contents into the glass bowl and looked at the measuring lines on the side. A hundred millitres remained.
Fully ten percent of the elixir of Italian delight. Ruined.
I wasn't sure I would be able to dump it down the drain, but I did. It was the last day of summer holidays - New Year's Eve, so to speak. A day for reflection.
Apparently, fully 30% of all purchased food gets thrown out, mostly ruined. According to that measure, my ten percent loss looked pretty good. And it had not been two years and we had kept our oil can correctly stored. But there were more meals I would like to have had with it. More bread to have eaten.
And the summer? And my life? What do I throw away, unused, unappreciated in my life? It does not come back. It goes rancid. What do I throw away by trying to hoard? I throw away the present moment. I always, always struggle with this, tending to live in the past and the future, tending to tinker with the present to make it better. At the end of the first year of my oldest son's life, I realized I could not have savoured it more. I felt pretty much the same way about our two weeks holiday this summer. But so much of the time, I hold back and hoard.
The widow kept spending her oil. She wanted to hoard it. Common sense said to do so. But she spent it and spent it and it was renewed.
The oil went down the drain. The oil can is going off to be recycled. But at the start of this new year, I wonder: how can I spend every single drop? how can I squander less and hoard less? how can I savour every drop?