The Fine Art of Dumpstering

Food from a Dumpster? It's not for everyone, but the Dumpstering philosophy—that the value of food cannot be defined by its price tag—is worth investigating.

November 2014
By Maximus Thaler and Dayna Safferstein

A Curious Harvest

Dumpstering may be an unusual way to get food nowadays—after all, we have supermarkets with all the food we could possibly want—but in A Curious Harvest (Quarry Books, 2014) Maximus Thaler and Dayna Safferstein argue that getting food from the Dumpster forces us to rethink its value. Plenty of edible food is thrown away daily because it is imperfect or because consumers don’t know how to prepare it without a recipe. Thaler and Safferstein present pages of ingredients with basic instructions for how to cook them and what to pair them with; no complicated recipes required. The following excerpt is from the introduction.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: A Curious Harvest.

A Curious Harvest is no standard recipe book, and so it deserves some introducing. It is not about finished dishes, but about raw ingredients. Think of it as choose-your-own-adventure cooking. Each of the pages contains a beautifully illustrated ingredient. I hope that you will page through them for their artistic value alone (there’s much more to food aesthetics than pretty packaging). For each ingredient there are short tips on how to prepare it, as well as suggestions of what other ingredients it might go well with. Carrots might lead you to quinoa, quinoa to garlic, garlic to kohlrabi. Flip through the pages and synergies will reveal themselves, vegetable medleys unfold, all without a single recipe compelling you to go out and buy that missing ingredient. There are no measurements to follow, no timers to keep track of. This approach gives cooking inspiration, not cooking dogma. The point is to cultivate an intuition on how to prepare and combine ingredients, so that the back of the fridge starts to reveal possibilities rather than limitations.

My aim is to provide a methodology for regaining a relationship with your food, a relationship many don’t even recognize that they have lost. Food is a deeply personal thing. We bring food inside us, and then it becomes us, and we become it. Yet despite the necessarily intimate union we enter into with our food every day, few of us know where our food comes from, what it is made of, or how it will affect our bodies.

Over the past hundred years, with the help of refrigeration and other preservative processes, supermarkets became a standard feature of our landscape. A supermarket is a truly incredible thing. Food from all over the world is now wrapped in plastic and beautifully arrayed on refrigerated shelves. Anything you want is just a fifteen-minute drive away. The advent of this wealth of choices fundamentally changed our relationship with our food. Increasingly, when people walk into their kitchens, the question on their mind is “What do I want to eat?” instead of the older question “What do I have to eat?”

At first glance, it is difficult to see the consequences of this shift. Much could be written about how supermarkets and the agricultural revolution have improved our standard of living. But nothing is gained without something lost, and I am constantly surprised by how many people are unaware of what we have traded away in exchange for strawberries in February.

In short, we have lost a relationship with our food. When we ask ourselves “What do I want?” we tend to think of products, finished dishes—vegetable lasagna, Wheat Thins, or General Tso’s chicken—that might satisfy our particular craving. We rummage around for our preconceived meal, and if we can’t find what we want, we go out and buy it. Even those of us that are dedicated cooks are subject to this style of thinking. A lifetime wandering through aisles of brightly colored advertisements has allowed us to forget that eggs don’t actually come from cartons—they come from chickens.

Root vegetable

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