Rhodri MarsdenFollow author @rhodri
Rhodri Marsden is a columnist for The Independent, and has written about technology, social media, dating, music, food, anxiety, relationships and various other ephemera for many publications including The Guardian, The Observer, Shortlist and Time Out.
It was only a Dairylea triangle. (Geometrically speaking it wasn’t even a triangle, it was a sector, but if you say “Dairylea sector” people think you’re weird.) Anyway, today you can buy eight triangles for a quid; back in 1992 when this incident occurred they would have been even cheaper. But the cost wasn’t the issue, apparently. “It’s the principle,” said Claire, her cheeks flushed red with annoyance, furious that I’d helped myself to the third of her eight triangles that morning. “But I’ve replaced it,” I said, pointing at a second box of eight triangles that I’d gone out and bought pretty much immediately because I could see this coming. “That’s not the point,” she said. We were at an impasse. The question of ownership of the thirteen remaining Dairylea triangles had become an almost philosophical one.
Whether you think I deserved a beating for succumbing to cheesy temptation or that Claire needed to get a life, life in rented accommodation is blighted by these kind of confrontations. Helping ourselves to housemates’ clothing or opening their post is comparatively rare, but the swiping of food, thanks to its colossal appeal to rumbling stomachs and the sheer ease of nicking it, is endemic. Good friends, friends who have sought out a property together, found one, put down a deposit together, moved in together and watched films on a threadbare sofa together can find their camaraderie shattered by something as inconsequential as gherkin theft. Because attitudes towards ownership of purchased food differ wildly.
There’s the communal, easygoing “what’s mine is yours” approach, or the passive aggressive “what’s yours is yours”, the subtext being “get your hands off my Marmite”. Measures to ward off food theft range from the casual kitchen murmur “I’m planning to eat that leftover curry for my dinner, alright?”, to locking food away behind metres of barbed wire and snarling dogs held back by stern looking security personnel. Between those two extremes lies the faintly preposterous but sadly necessary world of food labelling; these neatly labelled Tupperware boxes are designed to provoke guilt as someone sneakily pops one open – but of course many people experience no guilt whatsoever; they help themselves to ham without a care in the world, their sense of entitlement matched perfectly by the sense of injustice felt by the owner of said ham.
The consequences of these psychological mismatches can reach surreal levels that ought to be immortalised in a screenplay. The man who brands his initials on tomatoes with a knife held in a gas flame. The woman who weighs her butter every morning, noting down the mass in grams in a small notebook lest someone dare scrape off a small amount in the dead of night. The open-mouthed disbelief when you’re told off by a housemate for not leaving any of your own bread for them to snack on. Adding unmentionable substances to your own food to ward off the temptation of others or, worse, other people adding unmentionable substances to your food to stop themselves from eating it. And the sorry spectacle of someone getting up in your face and hissing: “You owe me an onion.” Because you can’t say “It’s only an onion”. It’s not an onion. It’s the principle.