How old is the oldest thing in the back corner of your pantry?
How many times have you brought food back from a restaurant only to have it languish in the fridge for weeks before you throw it, plastic container and all, into the garbage?
The last time you bought cilantro, did you manage to use it all before it turned into a brown, jellied mess?
Anything in the freezer so encrusted with ice crystals that you can’t even tell who was president when it got put there?
If you’re feeling sheepish about the answers to those questions, you’re not alone. My friend Sandy Fernandez reported that most people throw out “12 percent of all the food they bring home and 25 percent of the vegetables.” We all have secrets in our kitchen stashes and bad food buying decisions we’d rather stuff into the garbage and close the lid on.
But over the last year, I’ve become much more passionate and practical about not wasting food.
The EPA says we produced more than 36 million tons of food waste in 2012. And, yet, 49 million people in the U.S. have a hard time finding enough food to eat. They are a pair of skew lines, but surely we can do better to cauterize both.
I’ve long been part of the problem. As a food blogger/writer/editor, I’ve been a member of what I’ll call the “eatertainment” industry for over ten years. I was another voice encouraging people to think of food as an experience rather than a physical need to be remedied minimally. I bought and received as gifts foods that I knew I’d never get to the bottom of — impulse-buy pickles and tins of rosemary-cranberry salt, cans of beans purchased for days when I didn’t have any food in the house (which, of course, never happened).
I’ve seen so much waste and excess in the various eatertainment jobs I’ve had over the years.
You know those Stepford food displays at Whole Foods Market? They come at a cost. When I worked there (many, many years ago), I was encouraged to throw bruised apples into the trash compactor because no patrons would buy imperfect produce. I was told that organizations like City Harvest didn’t have the means to pick up the high volume of food and there was nowhere to store the food for them for sporadic pick ups.
In food media, we entice people to cook whatever recipes their hearts desire – 2 tablespoons of chopped dill for brightness, 1 teaspoon of walnut oil for earthiness, and 9 egg yolks for richness. But we don’t really teach people what to do with the rest of the bunch of dill so it doesn’t get spoiled before their next trip to the grocery store, or how to find 30 other recipes for the walnut oil so it can be used before it rapidly goes rancid, or a companion dish that will accommodate the remainder 9 egg whites.
We judge poor people for the bad food decisions they make eating processed foods, and then turn around and idolize chefs who plate up voluminous roots that have been peeled, freeze-dried and pulverized into vibrantly colored, unsnortable powders with less of the nutrients or filling fiber that might have satiated an empty stomach in their earlier forms.
We’re no longer hungry – we’re just bored.
And wasting food to pass time feels like a grievous sin.
Since moving back to L.A., I’ve thought much more about my own struggles with class, my eagerness to abandon all that I came from and the inevitable difficulty of escaping it. Moving to New York gave me a sense of entitlement that I had never had growing up. I lived well beyond my means because I thought the best of life might be found in the places I couldn’t afford. The hungry were less visible to me.
But growing up, my family never went out to restaurants. Eating meals with my parents now, I think more about the conditions of developing world poverty both of my parents grew up in, and how their childhood has shaped their sense of food security. For my father, it manifests in how he buys bagfuls of groceries for a family of 10 when the refrigerator is already packed to the gills. For my mother, it’s difficult to part with vegetables that are obviously well past their prime.
And because of my father’s health issues, I’ve become more cognizant of the genetic cards I’ve been dealt. Eating whatever I want has consequences, not just for me, but for the people around me who might have to take care of me in the future.
But this year has been one of great change for me. One of the blessings of being somewhat outside of mainstream food media (and pretty far outside of restaurant media) is that I can cook and eat exactly the way I want to. Whereas my diet used to consist of oversalted restaurant meals or elaborate recipes, I now cook on the fly with ingredients I have in my house.
I’ve always been pretty good at eating leftovers, but now I’m hyper vigilant about buying only what I need from the market and using every last bit of it. Since moving into a tiny apartment with a kitchen of my own, I’ve been trying to make sure everything in my pantry is “active” — everything I bring into my kitchen is something I actually plan to rotate into the repertoire in the immediate future. I don’t bring anything into the kitchen that I don’t plan to get all the way to the bottom of. So if a recipe calls for a teaspoon of fennel seeds, I think, will I get to the bottom of that jar of fennel seeds? If yes, I’ll get the fennel. If not, I don’t buy it. If I buy a bunch of beets, I’m prepared to roast the roots, skin on, and stew the tops for a side dish. If I want quesadillas but only have a wedge of Västerbotten cheese from IKEA, I guess I’m having a Swedish quesadilla, authenticity be damned.
I’m also growing my own herbs so that I don’t need to buy and waste bunches. I’ve got some kale going in small pots (though the insects are really enjoying it more than I would like). I try to save the water I use to rinse my vegetables to feed to my plants. I also got a Worm Factory and bought a pound of red wigglers from a local worm grower for dealing with the many scraps I have left after peeling my produce.
My immigrant parents gave me the gift of thrift in the kitchen, and it’s something I want to share more of around here. I’m lucky to be living in southern California, where produce is generally abundant, wonderful, and when it’s on sale, dirt cheap. I’d like to start using this space to share the more economical, lower impact way of life I’m leading these days. I know, I’m a cliché: Woman moves back to southern California, becomes a compost-making, chia-seed eating hippie. But, hey, it feels right.
So my first tip for you is to take stock of what’s in your cupboard as you reorganize its contents. Try to remember the last time each item was active. Take the oldest items from the furthest corners of your pantry and reactivate them with fresh ingredients.
- If you have dried beans from the last decade, give them a long soak before cooking, and once tender (which may take several hours), revive them with piles of fresh chopped herbs and generous glugs of olive oil.
- Take that cup of leftover frozen curry and extend it into a single meal with some stir-fried noodles and fresh basil.
- If nobody wants to eat the stale butt ends of a loaf of sandwich bread, whizz them up in a food processor or chop into cubes, fry in some olive oil with garlic, and add to your next salad or batch of pasta.
- Take your old jar of harissa or sambal or sweet chile sauce or Mexican hot sauce, blend with a bit of soy sauce and oil, and marinate a fillet of fish for a quick dinner.
- Throw a reclamation potluck.
And then the next time you go to the store, you’ll have a better sense of what you already have in your cupboards and what (if anything) needs to be replenished.