By Tracie McMillan
OnEarth • May 1, 2015
Last summer I asked Tamar Adler—the only professionally trained chef I know well enough to invite over to my house—to come help me clean out my fridge. I had reached a point where my kitchen was full of decrepit leftovers and castaways. I described the project as “sort of like Iron Chef, but broke.”
Here’s what greeted her upon opening the refrigerator door: stale tortillas; nine-month-old bacon fat; a half-head of romaine, leaves browned with age; many-eyed sweet potatoes; a pitted zucchini; a wrinkled mango; and two carrots, one of which had sprouted a profusion of root hairs and the other of which could be bent, Gumby-like, into the shape of a horseshoe. As Adler surveyed the offerings, I mumbled an embarrassed apology: “Most of this probably should have been, uh, thrown away.”
But that’s not how she saw things. Unruffled, she chopped the browned bits off the lettuce and gamely sampled a leaf. She peeled root hairs from the carrots. To both these ingredients she added some frost-burned leek scraps and a scraggly spring onion, then flooded this garden of salvage with some chicken broth to make a fragrant, flavorful lettuce soup. A handful of aging walnuts, some limp herbs, a few scoops of old rice, the juice of a shriveled lemon, and a jumble of zucchini matchsticks became a festive-looking salad. Bacon fat dressed up the tortillas quite nicely: Simmered in chicken stock and the tail end of a tomato-paste tube, they were transfigured into chilaquiles. (Had this truly been an Iron Chef competition, the chilaquiles would have won, hands down.)
From my “empty” fridge, Adler had created enough meals to supply not just our dinner but also my next day’s lunch and then dinner again. Had it been up to me, I probably would have taken one look at the wrinkled, the molded, and the shriveled, and tossed it all in the trash.
And that is exactly the problem.
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There is little in America’s food culture that celebrates the good-enough. The language of locavore chefs, the tradition of food writing, and even contemporary food television all tend toward the rhapsodic. We want only the perfect peach, the just-caught flounder, the newly laid egg. Making do with what’s available and edible, rather than what’s ideal, isn’t considered pragmatic—it’s considered pathetic.
Yet by fetishizing absolute freshness, we’re wasting a lot of food. Forty percent of the food produced in the United States gets tossed in the trash. Much of it is perfectly edible, though little of it is beautiful to look at. The waste begins in the fields, where farmers—fully aware that their shipments could be refused by buyers if their products fail to meet size or color expectations—begin the culling process. Food that clears the farm’s front gate then heads to a processing and distribution center, where it’s winnowed further. From there it journeys to individual supermarkets, whose marketing strategies rely on presenting an image of abundance and perfection. The result: more culling. Retailers are responsible for discarding about 10 percent of America’s food, much of it because that food doesn’t look good enough to sell.
And, of course, just because it does sell doesn’t mean it’s going to get eaten. As my fridge proved, people whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs—or whose actual dinner-making schedules are tighter than their imagined ones—waste plenty, too. According to Dana Gunders, an NRDC scientist who focuses on food and agriculture (disclosure), every year American grocery shoppers chuck some 25 percent of edible food after carting it home. All in all, we throw out 50 percent more than what we did 40 years ago.
Food currently represents the single largest category of solid waste that goes into our landfills. And whenever we waste food, we are also wasting the resources required to produce it. The water that goes into growing all this discarded bounty could, if conserved, meet the annual household water needs of 500 million people—the populations of the United States, Canada, and Mexico combined. And the energy required to grow it represents 70 times the amount of oil spilled in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to Jonathan Bloom, author American Wasteland and an advisor on “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” a 2012 issue paper published by NRDC (disclosure).
This insidious habit of throwing out any food that appears less than perfect—a habit shared by farmers, retailers, and consumers—can be traced to both marketing and human instinct. For retailers, creating the illusion of endless abundance and perfection is key to their work; it’s how they sell more to us. But the mirage of an infinite supply of fairly affordable food makes it easy to simply toss aside anything that doesn’t live up to our idealized vision of it. In turn, say farmers and retailers, this generates in consumers an expectation that they’ll always be able to find flawless food any time of the year, any day of the week. “The problem in America is that the perfect is the enemy of the good,” says Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, the national supermarket chain. “We’ve come to expect things to be perfect. But things in nature do not grow ‘perfect.’ ”
Instinct plays a role, too. There’s a grain of evolutionary logic behind wincing at a hairy carrot or a blighted romaine leaf. “Generally speaking, slimy and odorous things are decaying,” says Paul Rozin, a psychologist specializing in food choice at the University of Pennsylvania. Millions of years ago, our ancestors learned the hard way to avoid foods showing signs of decay—and therefore the likely presence of toxic microbes.
Increasingly, both policymakers and marketers are grappling with how to reduce food waste in a modern food culture based on abundance and perfection. Some are working to broaden the definition of “edible” to which consumers, trained by years of marketing, subscribe. In the European Union, which officially declared 2014 to be the “year against food waste,” French supermarket chain Intermarché has been attempting to retrain its customers in some of their shopping habits. Last year the store debuted a new category of items for sale: the wonderfully named “inglorious fruits and vegetables,” wherein double-knobbed carrots and misshapen eggplants—no prizewinning beauties, perhaps, but perfect for juices and soups—are sold at a 30 percent discount.
Here in the States, retailers are focused less on what our food culture demands and more on their own practices on the supply end. Rauch, the former Trader Joe’s president, is currently engaged in a new venture. He’s launching the Boston-area pilotDaily Table, a low-cost supermarket whose inventory will be made up of tasty, healthful food that may or may not be just a few days older, or a few shades less beautiful, than what’s to be found in the big-name stores. On the West Coast, Grocery Outlet has built a $1.5 billion, 220-store business out of the same relatively simple idea: Buy surplus food from producers and manufacturers on the cheap, then sell the rescued inventory to thrifty customers at a steep discount.
Meanwhile, even industrial-scale food-service kitchens are adopting new waste-management strategies. LeanPath, a waste-tracking system that’s currently used in more than 150 kitchens across the country, says its customers can expect to see their waste reduced by as much as 50 percent, and their food costs by up to 6 percent.
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Paradoxically, some of the most energetic champions of reducing food waste are those who arguably bear the most responsibility for our culture’s fetishization of perfect food in the first place: chefs and food writers. I fell into a friendship with Tamar Adler after she published her 2011 book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. . In it, she celebrates—in loving and appetite-whetting detail—her abiding faith in the virtue of kitchen scraps and dusty canned goods. (This despite the fact that Adler trained as a chef under Alice Waters, the grand dame of Berkeley, California’s Chez Panisse, a restaurant famous for serving only top-quality, garden-fresh heirloom produce.) Last fall, veteran food writer Eugenia Bone published an entire 400-recipe cookbook dedicated in large part to the proposition that cleverly recycling leftovers helps to foster a healthy “kitchen ecosystem.” And Gabrielle Hamilton—a James Beard Award–winning chef with an MFA in fiction writing—devotes a chapter of her best-selling cookbook Prune to recipes featuring the “garbage”: savory soups made from Parmesan rinds, flavorful vinegars made from wine dregs, spectacular side dishes made from braised zucchini tops and cauliflower cores.
What skilled chefs know—and what home cooks too often forget—is that for all our obsession over “perfect” food, what actually makes a meal perfect isn’t its appearance but its preparation. With just a little care and attention, ingredients can be rescued from the garbage pile and given starring or supporting roles in satisfying meals. Conservation is more than just an ethos for most professional chefs; in a restaurant setting, food wasted translates to money lost, making for a rare example of sustainable philosophy and the profit motive going hand in hand.
For the record, the rice salad that Adler and I made that evening at my house never quite came together. The balance between its acid and oil components was slightly off-kilter, and in the absence of demanding customers or dinner-party guests, neither of us felt particularly compelled to correct it.
What mattered wasn’t the meal’s perfection, or its lack thereof. What mattered was that I wanted to eat it anyway. Good enough, in this case, turned out to be all I needed.