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.

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by Pexels/Nikita Koshechkin

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.

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.

drawing of a root vegetable bulb with stems and leaves sprouting out of the top

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.

drawing of a penne pasta noodle

Choosing Real Food

It boils down to a question about choice. To some, the choice between Wheat Thins and saltines may seem significant. Their branding proclaims that each has a different crunch, weight, and texture. Yet each product is simply a mixture of wheat, oil, and salt. When we pay attention to ingredients, the choice between brands becomes less and less of a choice. The plethora of options the supermarket aisles present us with makes it easy to ignore the choices we are no longer allowed to make.

When we ask “What do I want?” we isolate our decisions to the final stage in food production. We may choose between Ritz and Triscuits, but in doing so we implicitly choose to buy our food in the form of a packaged product. By asking “What do I have?” we start to reclaim our personal role in food production, and a whole host of potential choices opens up. Where do our ingredients come from? How are we going to combine them? What methods will we use to cook them? Whom will we eat them with? These are all ancient questions that until very recently every human asked before eating. I believe we need to continue asking them. They foster a full relationship between us and what we put into our bodies. This book provides answers to those questions for just about any raw ingredient you might encounter, be it in the grocery store, on the farm, in a CSA box, or even in the Dumpster.

three tortellini noodles with one green, one purple, and one yellow


The first time I went Dumpstering was at a juice distribution center. The distributor had to throw away juice that had been received too close to its expiration date to be sold, or that had otherwise been damaged in shipment. Hundreds of gallons of juice ended up in the Dumpster every night, and we went to go get it.

The Dumpster was quite taller than we were–we had to climb up the outside and literally dive in. Heaped inside were juice containers and cardboard boxes, about three feet thick. Some were empty, open, or cracked, but most were completely sealed. It smelled like rot and alcohol, and I could see a shallow pool of fermenting juice below my feet. But the pool was less than an inch deep, so even when we got to the bottom my clothes never got wet.

We had to work quickly, grabbing an empty cardboard box and filling it up with as many juice containers as it could hold. I greedily sifted through hundreds of bottles of strawberry, mango, orange, and carrot juice. On the lid of each plastic jug was a price tag. The pints were labeled $2.99, and the quarts $7.99. My mind boggled as I did some crude multiplication and realized that we were packing up literally thousands of dollars’ worth of juice.

In the end, there was too much to fit into the car, so we had to leave some behind. On the ride home I was exhilarated. The entire process–the clandestine midnight gathering, the foreignness of the distribution center, and the otherworldliness of the Dumpster within it, the mountain of juice and meaningless price tags, the risk of being caught–all of it presented a captivating new way of looking at food and at waste. I remember driving home, sipping on a mango smoothie, and pondering the $2.99 price tag. I thought to myself, “I am never buying juice again.” It took a few more dives before that thought turned into “I am never buying food again.”

drawing of a bowtie noodle

Communal Living at Crafts House

So what exactly did we do with enough juice to fill a few bathtubs? We brought the juice to our collective house called The Crafts House. Crafts’ structure was suited quite well to handling these sorts of harvests–the culture revolved around sharing food. We pooled our money to buy communal food, so the kitchen was completely shared. Someone was always cooking. I would frequently wander into the kitchen at 3 a.m. to find a few overcaffeinated Crafties procrastinating from their essays by baking cookies. Eating together, as a house, was central to our identity. Every night at 6 p.m., two Crafties would cook and serve an open dinner. The food was mostly eaten by house residents, but there were always a few guests from outside.

Just before 6 p.m., the doorbell would begin to ring and guests would file in. Soon the cooks would come out and yell “DIINNEEERR!!!” at the top of their lungs. As the common room filled up, a sort of transformation would occur. College students are busy, and often very self-involved. But for a brief period of every day each of our personal identities was partially subsumed by the identity of the house. At dinner house residents and guests alike were all Crafties, sharing a meal together.

It was impossible to say whom the food belonged to in these gatherings; who was giving and who was receiving. Certainly one could follow the technicalities–the food was purchased by Hallie or Dumpstered by Rachael, cooked by Nick and eaten by Dayna–but that kind of reduction seemed to miss the point somehow. The meal was facilitated by the existence of the house as an entity just as much as by any of the cooks or diners. Crafts provided a space and social structure for this kind of sharing of food to occur. In some sense it was more accurate to say that the meal was given to us by the house itself. The house fed us, and we were its body, or perhaps its soul. This soul was an amalgamation of the identities of the residents, but there was also something distinct, an independent spirit of the house.

drawing of a shell noodle

One thing that spirit has given me is the belief that food is not a commodity to be bought and sold; nor is it simply a vessel for transporting fuel into our systems. Food is something to be shared, to build community around. Giving food to one another was how we showed that we valued each other’s presence. It was a medium of shared creation.

Crafts House was a place of craft, that is to say, art, but it is a mistake to conceive of art as confined to specific media like paper or clay. Cooking was one of many ways at Crafts that we conceived of art not as a specialized activity meant for museums and galleries, but as a way of being, a way of looking at the world. Art was everywhere. From faces conjured in the wood grain of our table to the glitter permanently soaked into our floor, no surface was without ornamentation. Each drunkenly scrawled doodle or sculptural installation made from Dumpstered bread was itself a display of individual skill and creativity, but all together they amounted to something more. Like the food shared each night, it was impossible to say just who exactly owned or even produced much of the art that suffused the building. Of course you could see examples of a particular Crafty’s style in specific places, but it was the totality of everyone’s work together, each bit of creation nestled in with all the others, that brought the house to life.

Rediscovering the Value of Food

Immersed in this sense of community–of shared food, shared space, shared property, and shared creation, it felt perfectly natural to Dumpster dive. Food wasn’t meant for Dumpsters, it was meant for sharing and nourishment. The food culture at Crafts allowed us to see uses for Dumpstered food that other people didn’t. There’s this funny phenom­enon that occurs where things that are useless in small quantities become very useful when you have enough of them. For a consumer cooking for just one or two, a mushy tomato seems like garbage. It’s mealy, the texture is all wrong–awful in salad. But a dozen mushy tomatoes can be used to make a wonderfully “fresh” tomato sauce–fresh, that is, compared to the stuff most people buy in jars. Often stores threw food away because their customers didn’t have the luxury to operate on the same scale that we could at Crafts, and so they failed to recognize when something was still useful.

drawing of a corked glass bottle of clear liquid

In general, usable food found its way into Dumpsters because the stores throwing it out weren’t in the business of selling usable food, but of selling prepackaged products. Consumers are given a wealth of choice, so even the slightest damage to a package means that it will be passed over in favor of pristine goods. We would commonly find cartons of eggs with one egg cracked. No one will buy eleven eggs when they could get a dozen for the same price without the mess, so the damaged carton gets tossed, even though there is perfectly good food inside it.

Among the bits of packaging and food there were also price tags. These were deliciously ironic. We would find unused rolls of stickers, each blankly declaring what would have been the value of food that was now covered in trash. Every price tag we pulled from the Dumpster was for me a small reminder that I increasingly had no idea how much anything was worth. After a dive, it became a ritual of mine to fry up the most expensive meat we found. At 2 a.m. I would eat filet mignon or wild scallops and try to figure out for myself just how much that meat was worth to me. Steak was valuable certainly ($16.99, apparently?), but the grocery store had decided it was worthless because it wasn’t sellable anymore. There was some disconnect between the concepts “valuable” and “sellable,” or perhaps between “sellable” and “usable.” I found the steak valuable because I had a use for it, while the store could not value it because it could not be sold. But the only reason I had a use for the steak, and everything else we Dumpstered, was because I had access to a very large kitchen with lots of storage, and lots of mouths to eat the excess. And I had access to that kitchen, by and large, because my surely overpriced college tuition was being paid for by a scholarship from the US government, whose health codes were largely responsible for the steaks’ presence in the garbage in the first place. So what on earth was the value of the steak?

The contents of the Dumpster forced traditional concepts of value into question. By sifting through the trash it seemed like I was able to see something that no one else could see. It felt like I had empirical evidence that the value of things was not what everyone thought it was. Or perhaps I had evidence that the value of things was exactly what everyone thought it was, and nothing more. Dumpstering allowed me to give in to my greedy, materialistic tendencies in a way that felt entirely productive. I could covet everything, but because so much of what I owned came from the trash, I wasn’t terribly attached to any of it. I was just as pleased to give things away as I was to acquire them. More pleased, actually, and the fact that I could freely give away Dumpstered items increased their value in my mind.

What I came to understand was that value is a highly subjective and multidimensional property. There are many ways to measure the value of an item, and measurement in one dimension does not exclude measurement in another. The grocery stores, by insisting that value and sellability were synonymous, were translating that multidimensional texture of an item’s value into a single green metric of money, and something very important was being lost in translation.

Money is valuable because it is easily exchangeable. But, just because money is easily exchanged does not mean that it is the only medium which value can be transferred through. After some thought, I decided that I would try to create my own medium of exchange–a medium that was capable of transferring value forms that were more complex and subjective, and less quantifiable, than money. And so I began working on The Gleaners’ Kitchen.

drawing of a ravioli noodle

The Gleaners’ Kitchen

The Gleaners’ Kitchen was meant to be a community space–a place where people could come and freely exchange ideas and of course, share food. I used Crafts House as my prototype. One of the things that fascinated me about Crafts was how distinctive the physical space was. The moment you walked through the door it was apparent that you were in another world, where the rules were different. I wanted The Gleaners’ Kitchen to have the same otherworldly feel, but more consciously and deliberately cultivated. Instead of a college dorm filled with kooky people, The Gleaners’ Kitchen would be a bona-fide Dumpster restaurant. Like Crafts, dinner would be served every night at 6 p.m. In addition, we would be a grocery distribution center and a cultural hub. There would be concerts, poetry readings, academic lectures, and craftivist workshops. Everything would be structured to facilitate a public conversation about value that I had been having in private with the Dumpster for years.

Nothing facilitates that conversation about value better than a shared meal of Dumpstered food. It was essential to me that The Gleaners’ Kitchen feel not like a restaurant, but like a home–an alternative to the world outside and a collaborative space for making change, using art and food as building blocks. I wanted to invite people into my home and share with them all of the wealth that society had left behind.

I chose the name “Gleaners” very deliberately, as a connection to our agricultural roots. Where the biblical Ruth once gleaned in the fields, we now gleaned in Dumpsters, but the feeling was the same. For ancient gleaners, every waking moment revolved around acquiring food, preparing it, processing it, and sharing it with loved ones. While a biblical agrarian lifestyle is not possible today, an intimate relationship with our food still is. There is something essential about living close to food in this way that most city dwellers have forgotten.

In the time before there were any grocery stores, people were much more familiar with what was good food and what was not. The advent of chemical preservatives and pasteurization did wonders for limiting the spread of illness, but it also allowed people to stop trusting their senses. A food’s “goodness,” once an objective quality to be confirmed by sight, scent, and smell, transformed into an amorphous property to be manipulated by advertisers. But in the Dumpster, all the food advertisements had decayed, leaving only the raw ingredient underneath, food essence, ready for evaluation.

Dumpster diving is a way to reconnect to our agrarian past in a modern context. Our pastoral mythologies are lush with stories of transformation, of death and resurrection. In the spring dead earth is transformed into living sustenance. In the autumn the plants wither and rot away, leaving nothing but a seed and the promise of rebirth next year. Dumpstering carried with it this mythological resonance. It was a way of transforming what others thought was dead and decaying into something new and life giving. We saw ourselves as society’s kidneys, filtering its waste and reassimilating what we could. The human city is still an emerging organism, and we strove to close its open loops. The Gleaners’ Kitchen aimed to reveal the links between production and consumption–creation and destruction–to integrate societies processes into a sustainable whole.

drawing of a corked glass bottle of honey-colored liquid

Dumpstering as Philosophy

Today, The Gleaners’ Kitchen exists mostly in the æther–in A Curious Harvest, and in photos and videos online. But my experience acquiring and sharing food in this way has forever altered the way I look at cooking, and the way I look at waste. By sharing food together and actively participating in its production, we can interact with what we are eating in a new and ancient way. Gardening, foraging, Dumpstering, cooking for each other–food production in all its forms–connects us to the grimy source of our food, the dirt from whence it came. Making and sharing food together can cause us to ponder each bite and ask ourselves, “Is this a good thing to put into my body?” If it is, we know it by the way it smells; the way it feels in our hand and tastes in our mouth.

They say that beggars (Dumpster divers?) can’t be choosers. In some sense working with raw ingredients limits choice–copying a specific flavor palate or replicating a takeout dish is almost impossible. But by reducing our freedom to choose somewhat, by choosing to only use simple ingredients, and to cook them with one another, we increase our freedom to create. A single tomato contains a lot of possibilities, and learning what each of those possibilities is can be incredibly liberating. Once ingredients are truly appreciated for what they are, nearly anything can be done with them. And the question “What do I have?” no longer feels so daunting.

This article hints at how to look at the contents of your fridge, and the world around you, through the discerning eyes of a Dumpster diver, even if actually Dumpstering is something you yourself would never do. Everything has a use, and wealth can be found in the most unlikely of places, especially if it’s shared. With a little imagination, a trash bin can become a bakery, a back alleyway can be a field of flowers, and the back of your fridge can metamorphose into a banquet fit for you and all your friends. Each ingredient has the ability to transform into something more, to contribute to something greater than the sum of its parts. The value of a meal comes as much from the warm smiles of your friends as it does from the warm fullness in your stomach.

Make sure you produce both.

book cover with ingredient illustrations on it

Reprinted with permission from A Curious Harvest: The Practical Art of Cooking Everything by Maximus Thaler and Dayna Safferstein and published by Quarry Books, 2014.