The bananas in my freezer turned black. Did the peel mold? Are they diseased? What in the hell is going on? I used to wonder things like this. Now I know that freezing bananas is actually a way to slow the ripening process. But having been raised in a household that instilled in me many food neuroses -- a predilection for pristine-looking, genetically modified produce, a heightened awareness of sell by dates and a mortal fear of mold -- my preferred method of dealing with old produce was always to just throw it away. Deleted. Good bye.
“There’s a lot of information out there that misleads consumers into thinking that they need to be wasting food,” says Josh Treuhaft, organizer of a sustainability initiative called Salvage Supperclub. “Safety concerns, and ‘sell by’ or ‘best buy’ dates, for example.”
Salvage Supperclub purposes to re-think “food waste” and transform society’s criteria for determining whether “undesirable” foods are good to eat. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a dinner party that serves plates of rescued food that would otherwise be tossed, with menu items ranging from wilted kale and lumpy potatoes, to broccoli stems and stale bread.
In summer 2014, Treuhaft began organizing suppers in rented dumpsters. He spoke with a range of professionals from food scientists to natural chefs with the intent to develop recipes that can easily be replicated in one’s own kitchen. Spreading the word about DIY waste-reduction tactics is firmly on Treuhaft’s agenda, and he strongly encourages anybody who takes interest to co-opt his recipes and methodologies.
“When you focus on waste, it’s hard to get lots of people really excited about it,” says Treuhaft, who initially used his design prowess to rally people around waste-reduction through composting. After being involved in a number of groups determined to help composting gain momentum, Treuhaft says he found it difficult to inspire widespread enthusiasm about handling garbage. “Most people think of waste and they think it’s icky, or that it’s going to be bad to deal with, or that it’s going to make them feel guilty every time they acknowledge they’re wasting all of this food.”
And it’s certainly possible to marinate in guilt. America is, quite literally, full of garbage, and a huge component of that garbage happens to be perfectly edible food. The statistics are disenchanting. How is it possible that 49.1 million Americans live in ‘food insecure’ households when nearly half of America’s food supply goes uneaten? What kind of broken system makes it easier to feed climate-damning landfills than actual people?
The capitalist complex is married to social and environmental consequence. Our deeply ingrained, habitual cycle of buying and jettisoning goods encourages an economy of overproduction, one that inevitably results in a heaping pile of waste. In America, landfills result in 18.2% of of the country’s climate-damning greenhouse gas emissions - a nightmarish statistic even before learning that the largest component of landfill waste is uneaten food.
Treuhaft’s project addresses this global concern by educating home cooks on ways they can take matters into their own hands (and kitchens). In short film, aptly titled “Eat Everything”, Treuhaft and Jesse Kipp demonstrate cost-effective, simple ways the everyday person can ‘salvage’ food that is normally trashed - methods that would, in aggregate, save households money, reduce food waste, and ideally, curb food overproduction by leveling supply to meet a lower demand.
While Treuhaft is not the first to sermonize food waste reduction tactics, his project contains a unique spin that steers waste reduction rhetoric to emphasize “food usability”. “I noticed when people talk about food, they get excited and light up,” says Treuhaft, “I wondered if there is a way to use the fact that people get excited about food, that would help them waste less food. That was sort of the turning point.” Refocusing on actual food instead of garbage, he says, is the key to reaching a broader audience.
TRASH VS. TREASURE
After this revelation, Treuhaft teamed up with natural chef Celia Lam to outline a number ways that “undesirable foods” can be transformed into “desirable” meals. Their “showing by doing” model is meant to provide people with tools to inspire change in food habits, and empower more people to adopt sustainable practices within the kitchen. He cites two easily co-optable strategies, including “eating parts of fruit and vegetables you normally wouldn’t eat” and “recognizing that the way the fruit or vegetable looks on the outside, is not always indicative of whether it’s edible, or how good it will be.”
Using parts of produce that one would normally toss, such as watermelon rinds or broccoli stalks, prevents a significant amount of waste from entering one’s trash or compost bin. “People eat the florets and throw away the stem, which is actually a big amount of food,” he says. On Salvage Supperclub’s recipe handout, Treuhaft and Chef Lam demonstrate an assortment of ways vegetables can be eaten in their entirety, including uses for kale stems and “Root to Stalk” roasting techniques for limp veggies. If whipping up a quick dinner comprised of foreign vegetable parts seems intimidating, Chef Lam provides recipes for preserving oft neglected vegetable parts via pickling.
Another approach is to deprogram fears of ‘old’ or spoiled food, and dispel a bounty of misinformation about what actually makes food go bad. “As things age, sometimes they actually get better,” Treuhaft says. “A lot of us think ‘oh that’s old, it must be bad and I don’t want to eat it,’ but there’s actually a lot you can do.” From Treuhaft, I learned that my blackened bananas can be frozen and made into ice cream, “one of the best desserts [he’s] ever had.” He also advised, more generally, that overripe produce is fantastic for juices, soups and purees, and he explained that wilted herbs can be used to make delicious infused oils. (Find a recipe, below.)
For those who are squeamish about taking advantage of softer, more mature produce, I learned that it’s important not to conflate spoilage with unsafety. “By definition, spoilage is when the aesthetics of a food change - so when the look, smell and flavor change, it’s totally separate from the bacterium that make you sick,” Treuhaft says. Thus, the common culprits of food-borne illness -- listeria, e. coli, salmonella -- are mutually exclusive from the microorganisms that produce spoilage, and the shriveling zucchini in the back of your fridge can still contain plenty of sustenance.
“Best by” and “Sell by” dates are another misleading factor that result in ample, albeit unnecessary waste. “People see them and they think there’s a food safety concern, and there might be to a very small degree,” says Treuhaft, “but sell-by dates are actually not regulated by the government, they’re indicated by the manufacturer, mostly to try to get you to eat the food at the peak of freshness so it looks best for them.” It makes perfect sense: sell by dates encourage speedy turnover of supermarket goods, and by de facto, mass over-purchasing that results in hundreds of pounds of perfectly edible waste. Manufacturers have rigged the system so they reap the monetary benefits of convincing people that their food is unfit to eat.
Alternative food disposal methods such as composting help mitigate the issue by averting landfills and turning garbage into nutrient-rich (and profit-bearing) soil, but composting, which lives near the bottom of the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, doesn’t necessarily reduce the amount of food one throws away. Sandy Nurse from BkRot, a Brooklyn-based composting collective, explains that waste-reduction in a multi-limbed process. “There’s a lot of freeganism, and dumpster-divers, and people who live off dumpster food. When you see that, you’re kind of like ‘well this is not really ready for the compost pile’...on the one hand you’re just trying to get people who are waste producers to compost, and then you’re also teaching people what [food] is good and not good.”
The zero-waste movement gaining momentum. Trash bloggers are turning their waste-free lifestyle commitment into narratives full of tricks and tips about conservation. Blogs such as “Trash is for Tossers”, an effort run by recent NYU grad Laura Singer, presents a series of posts about how to transform one’s entirely life to fit the waste free agenda. She touches on a different facets of avoiding food waste by sharing recipes for DIY beauty products, including a face scrub with a base ingredient of coffee grounds.
Unfortunately, the time and dedication required to go entirely waste-free can seem cumbersome. Nearly 23.5 million Americans living in ‘food deserts’ simply don’t have access to bountiful produce options, and many of us don’t have the disposable income necessary to make a full transition. The mission of Salvage Supperclub is cost-efficient in that it does not require a complete overhaul, and instead encourages home cooks to take small steps to reduce their food waste output. Treuhaft’s eventual goal is to make these recipes more accessible, and demonstrate to a more scaleable audience just how easy it can be to pursue salvaging as an avenue of culinary exploration. “I think people should totally be doing this everywhere,” says Treuhaft. “Ideally, there would be a website where chefs from around the world can share the way they do all of this stuff, and post recipes and tools so people can start cooking this way...I wholeheartedly believe you can get people together on a Sunday, look in your fridge, and say ‘let’s make a soup out of that.’”
Further Reading on Food Salvaging:
US EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy: http://www.epa.gov/foodrecovery/
End Food Waste Now: http://www.endfoodwastenow.org/
City Harvest: http://www.cityharvest.org/
RECIPE: BASIL INFUSED OIL
Recipe adapted from: Natural Gourmet Institute
Yield: 1 cup
1 handful of fresh basil, approx. ½ cup (or other favorite herbs)
1 cup of extra virgin olive oil
1. Boil a small pot of water. Blanch herbs for 15 seconds (including stems) and quickly shock in an ice water bath. Drain excess water and pat dry.
2. Chop the herbs and add to a blender. Add half cup of oil. Blend to a smooth paste consistency.
3. Add mixture to a sterilized pint size glass jar. Add remainder half cup of oil. Shake well and let the mixture sit for one day in the refrigerator.
4. Filter the mixture using cheesecloth. Infused oil will last a couple weeks, tightly covered and stored in the refrigerator.