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Waste not, want not

June 27, 2011

I had great intentions to post pictures from this weekend, but it just isn’t going to work. We don’t have internet on the property right now (oh, the humanity!), so I brought my computer and the camera to work today. The camera’s batteries died before I could download the weekend’s pictures, so no photo updates. A lot is happening, but you’ll just have to come back tomorrow to check it all out.

 

I still felt like writing a post though. I’ve been having one of those periods where it feels like everything in life is coalescing around need, want, perfection and food. I’ve been reading Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland: How American Throws Away Nearly Half its Food (and What We Can Do About it). The book is a little dry – a lot of facts without much story to hang it on – but really interesting. Fact one: America throws away nearly half its food every year (as you may have guessed from the title). That includes farms, restaurants and institutions, as well as households. Bloom doesn’t count losses due to nature, or the non-use of things like peelings and bones in that calculation. That number is just astonishing to me, although I will admit that I am not a 100% food user. Stuff goes bad in the fridge, or I don’t get around to harvesting that cucumber. There are some foods I don’t take home as leftovers because they won’t taste as good the next day (yes you, giant omelet).

Bloom’s discussion of food that never makes it to the consumer is especially interesting to me. This is the non-perfect food of the world that gets left in the field, culled in processing, or thrown away by grocery stores. When I worked as a farm intern we would leave tons of food in the field that didn’t fit the farmer’s high standards. I benefited because I went through the field collecting garbage bags full of brassicas, spinach, and too small beets and carrots. The farmer benefited because she had an amazing reputation with the local grocery and restaurants she sold to. If you imagine this non-harvest taking place over thousands of farms though, it is crazy how much never leaves the field. Bloom points out that many farms will call local Food Banks to collect the excess, but often the amount of the food and its perishability makes only a small portion usable.¬† As Americans have become more picky about the visual aspect of our food and less able to process the excess/ugly/about to go bad, or feed it to animals, more is going to waste.

I was already thinking about this issue before I started the book. A few weeks ago a recipe called for “old arugula” – you were going to be sauteing the arugula, so the tougher leaves and intense, peppery taste were good things. Of course, you can’t really buy old arugula. Unless you grow arugula or know someone who does, it just doesn’t exist on the market. The dish still tasted OK with young, salad arugula, but it wasn’t fantastic. This made me think about all of the older food you can’t buy: chickens (for stew and chicken and dumplings), rabbits, sheep (mutton). OK, so mostly you can’t buy older animals, but still. There are all of these dishes that revolve around the flavor that comes from maturity that have become impossible to make unless you (again) do it yourself or know someone who does. The chickens are especially frustrating. I was flipping through Alice Water’s The Art of Simple Food (a great cookbook), and she calls for making stock with an entire chicken. Unless you have an old hen, this is just such a waste of good meat, even if it does make the stock richer. I should point out that the recipe suggests removing the chicken breasts after a certain period of poaching, but that still seems like a waste to me.

To summarize: we are getting worse at using what we have, and pickier about what we bring in. This has become an overarching theme for Mr. B and I. When we were in the house we basically had what we needed. Now that we have the property, it seems like there is an endless ocean of need. We need a tractor, we need fencing, we need irrigation, we need a driveway, a house, animals, a better truck…it seems like every day there is something new. As we try to balance these needs with our income (which seems smaller and smaller, even though we bought the property to try and do more with what we had), we are always asking, “can we get this off our property? Can we get it used? How use?” We are balancing aesthetics with functionality. Readers, it is hard. Of course we both want the nice, new Kubota, and the fence that looks inviting rather than creepy. A big root cellar instead of a bucket in the ground. I’ve always believed that if you are going to make an investment, you are better off going all the way rather than short-shifting yourself and having to make another investment in a few years. Sometimes though, that isn’t possible. And as I discussed in the post on using recycled materials, there are a lot of reasons to use what you already have around.

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