Saturday, November 7, 2009

Saved From the Scrapheap (a Mild Obession)

I’ve said this before, but I grew up in a household where it was a sin—and I use that word with all the force of it behind it—to throw away food. That didn’t stop me (I was especially discreet at tossing the shoe-leather liver we were forced to eat once a month on the premise that it was good for our blood), but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel guilty about it. That guilt followed me into adulthood, where for the first twenty years of it, my way of dealing with food I no longer wanted to eat was to leave it to rot and mold away in my refrigerator so that I would have no choice but to throw it away—no guilt! (Ha ha! says the psychotherapist.)

In my 40s I married Peter, whose childhood lessons about not wasting food (we were both raised by people who had lived through the depression and a world war) dovetailed neatly with his propensity to be obsessive-compulsive about almost everything he does, and I found myself living with not only the ghosts of my Catholic childhood but also the Felix Unger of leftovers. Peter goes after saving food with the urgency of a medic on a battlefield. (Earlier this week he got me, protesting at first, to rinse all the mold off some olives that had been left festering in the back of the fridge. I have to admit that they were fine once washed, but I would never have done this on my own.)

Then I started seriously cooking and paying serious attention to food as a political issue, and the non-productive guilt I felt about wasting food turned into a creative drive and a personal imperative to use food wisely and respectfully—not just in the buying and cooking of it, but in the aftermath of the buying and cooking of it. The fact that we have two compost bins means that we are virtually assured of putting almost all our food matter to use versus waste. But the barrels get amazingly full very fast. And truly, if I put into the compost a potentially edible morsel of food, it bothers me. Couldn’t I have done something with that?

It would be inaccurate to say that guilt isn’t lurking as an underlying emotion here. And I will never be as zealous as Peter, who will try to save the one teaspoon of flesh from a tomato that has nearly completely rotted on the vine. (Sam was down here last week and saw me, in a fit of spouse-infection, actually trying to do this myself; he arched an eyebrow and said, “Therese — compost it.” Whew! Thanks, Sam for rescuing me from that vortex.)

But I’ve come to understand my save-the-food mentality as a kind of moral and political stance that I have chosen for myself: never take food for granted. In a practical sense, what I have done is turn the whole issue of food-use into a kind of cooking game: What do you do with [fill in food scrap name here]? (You can sing this to the tune of What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?)

So, from time to time, I’m going to use this blog to share some of the ways that I reuse food that might otherwise be headed for the compost. (I’m hoping Louise and Andrew will contribute their uses as well; and of course, readers of this blog are most encouraged to share their saved-from-the-scrapheap recipes.) I’ve already posted one recipe for what I call compost stock. Here’s one for the moldering food stuff that I hate the most: sour milk.

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