Let’s Talk Rubbish

We’re talking rubbish. Not gibberish, but garbage, refuse, waste, whatever you want to call it. The stuff we put in the bin. There’s a saying, ‘One man’s trash is another’s treasure’ and that goes for food and food waste too. So let’s go through the rubbish bin and see what’s cooking.

In her 2014 talk at the Food & Words food writers’ festival in Sydney, poet and author Kate Llewellyn had the audience not only in fits of laughter but also in the palm of her hand with stories about retrieving food from the skip behind the supermarket near her home. The humour lay in the incongruity of the image — a woman of a certain age, wearing Armani, hauling frozen salmon sides and French cheese from the skip.

But the message was clear: we are a wasteful lot who throw perfectly good food onto the rubbish heap.

Kate provided genuinely useful advice for budding ‘freegans’. Arm yourself with a long pair of tongs for better reach, she advised. Have a cabbage leaf on hand to wave to anyone of authority who might approach, saying: “I’m collecting greens for the chooks”.

Much of the food that Kate finds in the skip is food that has been thrown out because it’s approaching or has reached its use by date. Labelling and date stamping food is a requirement of the industrial food production system, and unquestionably provides important data for consumers. But there’s something missing.

All food deteriorates over time. There’s a window where food delivers optimum flavour, nutrients and pleasure and unless we know how to read food and pick that moment to eat it, we’re missing out on the good stuff.

Using the calendar as the sole means of evaluating a food’s condition serves to alienate us from the food we eat and our religious adherence to external data to tell us if a food is safe or not comes at the expense of our senses.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a food label (allowing for all the variables of temperature that can occur in the supply chain) that indicates when the food is at its best? Like a scratch and sniff window. Mind you, Mother Nature is way ahead: fruit perfumes send messages of ripeness directly to our olfactory system and the undeniable crunch of celery, cabbage or capsicum is truly a song of freshness that, if we tune our senses to it, tells us everything we need to know.

That mankind has survived and prospered is proof that our senses, especially of smell and taste, are all-important in warning us about the food we are about to pop into our mouth (notwithstanding the nefarious practice throughout history of poisoning food as a means of picking off your political rivals).

If becoming a freegan or eating food on or past its used-by date is a bridge too far, at the very least take to sniffing your food more and thus reacquainting your senses with the tasks they were designed for.

Here’s another quick rubbish story. As a nation of fish fillet eaters (eating food off the bone is yet another example of our alienation from the food we eat; people have an aversion, or even repulsion, to seeing the shape or form of the beast they’re eating and prefer filleted food), a lot of fish skeletons are thrown into the rubbish bin. For cooks who know the value of using the bones for stock and the joys of fish cheeks and neck, these are treasure troves. Throwing things like skate wings and prawn heads away is sacrilege to some. Guess what you might see on the TEDxSydney lunch menu  prawn head soup anyone?

The same principle applies in the abattoir and butchery, where the less salubrious parts of the animal are simply tossed. The ear, snout and tail of the pig. Bovine hoofs and tendons. There are serious savings to be had when you shop from the rubbish bin. Have you noticed the recent wave of pig’s tails appearing on restaurant menus lately?

If you were to do an analysis of the contents of your household rubbish bin, how much could be recycled or put to good use? Speaking about waste, thrift and frugality at the 17th Symposium of Gastronomy in Adelaide in 2009, Dr Bernadette Hince recalled how little garbage her family generated in the 1950s. Sure, food had much less packaging then than now and garbage removal may have been more expensive, but very little was thrown away. Scraps were fed to the chooks or dug into the garden or, god forbid, eaten. Tea leaves were poured onto the rose bushes and fat was poured into the dripping jar next to the stove.

With more than 40 per cent of general household waste made up of food scraps, the volume of biodegradable material going to landfill can be reduced by us not putting it in the rubbish bin. Kudos to Randwick City Council for its food scraps collection trial. The aim is to provide a full food scrap collection service to all residents by July 2015. By collecting food scraps separately, they can be used to make compost rather than contribute to the greenhouse emissions associated with landfills.

They can also be processed to create Biogas, which generates renewable electricity that can be used to power homes and businesses.

Finally, we can’t talk about rubbish and food without talking about rubbish food. Or junk food. That nutritionally inert stuff that, let’s face it, we also love. From Pop-Tarts to Cheezels, most of us have a guilty, maybe even covert, relationship with junk food. At TEDxSydney 2015, food curator Jess Miller plans to indulge, in a small way, our junk food fetish too.

Words: Barbarba Sweeney

Photo: J.Bloom via Flickr CC

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