This week on my Twitter feed, I came across a photo posted by the famous chef and restauranteur, Yotam Ottolenghi. In the photo was a menu he had created as guest chef for a “WastED Tea” on the rooftop of the famous Selfridges department store in London. Each dish and beverage was carefully outlined, including ingredients described as: ends, scraps, low grade, and rejected. It doesn’t exactly sound gourmet, does it? In a time when famous chefs pride themselves on procuring and sometimes even growing the highest quality foods for cooking, this definitely caught my attention.
A little research helped me to understand that WastEd is a food movement, started by Chef Dan Barber at his Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village, dedicated to food waste and reuse, including overlooked byproducts of our food system, low quality ingredients, and food scraps that would otherwise be discarded. The idea is that well-trained chefs should be able to work with almost any ingredient to produce something delicious. By rethinking their (and our) understanding of food waste, chefs can create innovative and inspiring dishes.
These days it seems like food movements are a dime a dozen, but this one got me thinking. My initial reaction wasn’t overly positive. Just seeing the menu immediately took me back to a food experience during my college years at the University of California, Berkeley.
I’ll explain, but there are two things to understand about my alma mater. First, if you haven’t arrived on campus with a strong call to action or a cause for which you are willing to sacrifice health, education and general well-being, then you better be damn sure you find one before you can say “Birkenstocks”. Otherwise, you will be recruited for every protest that needs a few more warm bodies.
Secondly, the vast majority of the student body can be divided into three ideal types: those who come for the prestigious, high quality education that Berkeley provides, those who come for the liberal, crunchy granola atmosphere, and those who come for both. The latter two tend to populate the Coop System, a throwback to the socialist ideals of the 1960s. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the system consists of several different houses in which students live cooperatively, sharing all household tasks, such as cooking, shopping, cleaning and gardening.
It is cheaper than apartment living, which in the Bay Area can be exorbitant, and consolidates all your living responsibilities into a couple of hours, just once a week—key selling points for busy college students, many of whom have absolutely no idea how do these things for themselves anyway. And, at least in theory, it creates a kind of home-based community of like-minded individuals. Of course, that is not always the case, since one never really knows what mindset their housemates are going to have.
There is a particular variety of Berkeley students who, having just returned from a semester abroad, usually in a third world country, see themselves as far more worldly and enlightened than us poor provincials who stayed on campus. And I was unlucky enough to be living with one. Usually, when I saw her coming, and knew that I was about to be subjected to her latest lecture on how I should be broadening my worldview, I’d pretend not to see her and immediately disappear into my room.
One afternoon, I was charged with cleaning out the coop refrigerator—a gross and thankless task if there ever was one. From the back of the fridge, I pulled out a bag of something that looked brown and lumpy, with white and green fuzz all over it, and floating in something akin to pond scum. As I turned to dump it in the trash, I could see my housemate making a beeline straight towards me. “You’re not going to throw that away, are you?,” she asked. “Uh, yeah,” I replied.
If the contents of the bag hadn’t already turned my stomach, then her sanctimonious and condescending tone were sure to do the trick. She grabbed the bag of what turned out to be moldy mushrooms and began explaining to me that in China, where she spent her last semester, people don’t throw away perfectly good food the way that they do here in America. She went on to tell me that it was our elitism and wastefulness that made us insist on unblemished produce and rendered us incapable of accepting less than perfect ingredients.
“Luckily,” she added, “I’m on cooking duty tonight. I’ll use them up.”
In my head, I was screaming, “No fucking way am I eating those!”, but my mouth was trying to patiently explain to her in “I” sentences (the preferred Coop conflict resolution technique) why this was not a good idea. “I’m sure you are right, we Americans are not used to eating such things. Maybe now is not the best time to start?” “I believe those are not just past their prime, but actually rotting in their own slime.” “I know that I would feel really terrible if our whole house got food poisoning from eating spoiled food that I served them.” “I’m quite sure you are an excellent cook, but not even professional chefs like to work with fuzzy mold.”
It was to no avail. Despite all efforts to dissuade her, she was determined. Turns out that her “cause” was a campaign to Save the Vegetables. I wanted no part of it. I warned the others and then ate cereal in my room for dinner that night.
It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to acknowledge that, while she may have gone a little too far, she wasn’t entirely wrong. I am not advocating that we eat moldy, rotten food, or compromise our cossetted American digestive systems. I’m simply saying that perhaps we have become a bit elitist in our food preferences, and therefore quite wasteful.
I’m as guilty as anyone. If it hasn’t already been made clear, I’ll admit it—I am a total food snob. I love to walk the produce aisles of Whole Foods and admire the neatly organized rows of the most perfect fruits and vegetables I have ever seen. I like spending time there, just hanging out with the beautiful produce, far longer than I really have to, even if I have to sell a kidney to afford them. They just look so good—they make me want to cook and eat healthier food. I know that little dents and bruises don’t matter—I can just trim them off—but they just don’t inspire me in the same way.
On television, we see a parade of celebrity chefs telling us to buy the highest quality food in order to have the best tasting meal. Never mind the fact that I am not a chef, and my food will not look or taste like theirs no matter what quality I buy. They preach food superiority, and I am their loyal follower.
But one of the things that WastED and Chef Barber point out is that most European food traditions are not from the highest quality foods. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Unless you happen to be one of the select few who are descended from aristocrats or royalty, your native cuisine probably evolved from peasant food; cheap, readily available, low-quality ingredients transformed by skilled cooks and the best passed-down family recipes.
This is certainly true of the Jewish food that I grew up with. Gefilte fish is a kind of fishball traditionally made from carp, an abundant lake fish in eastern Europe. Granted, gefilte fish is a bit of an acquired taste, but if you have ever had the unfortunate experience of eating just plain, unadulterated carp, you will totally understand—carp pretty much tastes like the dirt at the bottom of the lake. If that was all that was available to me, I’d chop it up and mix it with a bunch of other stuff too.
Brisket has a similar story. One of the toughest, and, at one time, the cheapest cuts of meat (although my father swears that the brisket he purchases from the kosher butcher these days is highway robbery), it is cooked down until it becomes soft and flavorful. My ancestors may not have had much money, but apparently, they were skilled cooks who could wait around all day until their meat softened.
I have to say that the more I think about it, the more judgmental I become (I know, not much of leap). When celebrity chefs use only the best quality ingredients, it feels like cheating. Anyone (with the possible exception of my husband) can make a good meal if they use good food. They’ll even tell fans of their cooking shows that you don’t have to do much with superior ingredients, other than just letting their flavor and quality shine through. Where’s the challenge in that?! But cooking with the bad, the disgusting and the downright inedible—now that’s a real test of skill!
I have also occasionally wondered what happens to the imperfect rejects from Whole Foods. It turns out that there are a few non-profits dedicated to the rescue of ugly produce and passing it on to those in need. However, the vast majority of it goes to waste. State and city laws have become increasingly restrictive about donations of fresh ingredients and food that is even slightly past its expiration date, regardless of its condition and the fact that these dates are often arbitrarily set.
I now have both a new awareness of just how wasteful we really are, and how much creative space exists for working with imperfect ingredients. I’m impressed by the chefs who are taking on the challenge and spearheading this movement. I’m even feeling inspired to try some new things in my own kitchen, though I can promise it won’t involve moldy mushrooms.