I Eat Trash
How I Learned to Cook Filet Mignon From Garbage
We get to the usual spot and start feeling the bags.
We’ve got on gloves and headlamps. We can tell what’s in the bags, to an extent, by the texture and weight of the outside, but anything curious gets untied. Carefully, if possible. It’s important not to make a mess. We don’t want to give the owners a reason to shoo us away. They know people pick through their trash and they bag it up, often, in ways that make it easy for us.
The first few bags are usually a couple dozen loaves of bread, pastries, bagels, all loose in clean bags. They get set aside. Bread is abundant and not a priority. There’s a bagel shop across the street, too, that puts out hundreds of bagels every night, that we can pick from if we like. Fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, yogurt and eggs are what we want.
I open a central bag of what I think is boxed salads and pull out a box of grocery store sushi. And then another. And then another. There are forty: tuna and salmon and eel, vegetable and California rolls. This is breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three days.
One of the most common misconceptions about the food grocery stores throw away is that it isn’t safe to eat.
Some of it certainly isn’t. Sushi is a bit sketchy. It’s something you want to eat as fast as you can, especially raw tuna, for sure. (You can revive the stale rice to an extent by microwaving it on 50% for about 30 seconds.) But generally, when something is a little off, you can tell.
Most of the food in a grocery store dumpster isn’t expired. Most of the time you can’t really figure out any discernible reason why it would be thrown out: probably the packaging got a little messed up. Sometimes, it’s opened, but most things are fully sealed. Or they just have to make room for something else. Stores have to get rid of inventory sometimes, and there isn’t really a place for that inventory to go. There are a lot of conditions that make food unfit to sell that don’t by any means make it unfit to eat.
There are always a couple of taped up boxes labeled “Broken Glass.” I always like to open those, carefully, because there’s a good chance that something inside isn’t broken: like spices and maple syrup. Usually, it’s just a jar of salsa that someone dropped and cleaned up, but sometimes it’s a whole case of dried ghost peppers in sealed plastic bags surrounded by busted outer jars.
The places I dumpster at actually donate a bunch of the food they can’t sell to food banks.
They fill a truck with the stuff: I’ve seen it. They compost. They recycle. They still throw out enough to feed several people for a week every day.
It’s legal to take stuff from the trash where I live, as long as the trash is put out somewhere accessible: it’s not locked up and you don’t have to jump over a gate. At some spots, we’ll start picking through stuff while the shop workers are still putting it out: they know we’re there.
In other cities, it’s a crime. In some places, shop staff will destroy perfectly good food and other merchandise by slashing it or dousing it in paint or bleach to make sure no one can get it. I don’t bother going to places like that.
People were like that where I grew up: everyone had fruit trees in their yards, and they would pick all the fruit and stack it up and put it in the garbage. No one would risk taking it because the neighbors might come out armed if they thought you wanted to stop their grapefruits from going to the dump.
Another misconception is that if I’m dumpstering and I’m not homeless; if I’m not absolutely starving; I’m taking food away from people who need it more than I do.
This isn’t how it works.
At least, not here: grocery stores put out their trash at night after they close. It gets picked up by a separate garbage run than regular street trash, within an hour or two.
If anyone else wants the stuff you’re picking through, they’re standing next to you. You can talk to them and ask them what they want. You can help them find that stuff and they’ll help you. Almost everyone has dietary restrictions and a specific item they’re really looking for: they’ll leave everything else behind.
That gives me an advantage: I’ll eat almost anything, and my friend has a truck.
Besides the sushi, which we found in those quantities twice, these are some of my favorite finds:
- About 100 small bars of chocolate.
- About 20 boxes of microwave chicken tikka masala.
- About 30 bags of those snap pea crackers.
- About a dozen bottles of maple syrup.
- Smoked and raw salmon, almost every time.
- Truffle butter, which I put on the salmon.
- Many bottles of nice olive oil.
- The cheeses: a huge sack of shredded Parm, bricks of aged Gouda, cheddar, Havarti, Swiss, basket ricotta, you name it. But my absolute favorite: smoked burrata.
- Flours: At least thirty pounds of all-purpose flour, some whole wheat, some almond flour, rice flour, tapioca starch, gluten-free mixes.
- Pounds and pounds of nuts: pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews.
- Dried fruit, as well: raisins, apricots, cranberries, figs, pineapple, oranges, dates. I have a two-year-old date tree, now, that sprouted from a pit from one of these dates.
- Occasionally, boxes and boxes of fresh figs: the shelf life of figs is short, so when they are in season, they get thrown out soon after.
- Desserts: frozen mixed berry tarts, pies, cheesecakes, chocolate babka. A whole box of cherry cordials.
- Three six-packs of beer. A bottle of white wine.
- Plants: these included potted plants like basil and rosemary and fuchsia, succulents and orchids, as well as bouquets of cut roses, tulips, daffodils, gladioli, and so on.
These are some of the most disgusting things I’ve found:
- We took home about a dozen packages of dried tortellini, only to realize after getting them in the light that every single one was infested with moths and filled with threads of caterpillar silk.
- We took home a gallon jug of chocolate milk, and we were going to split into containers and each take half. I suggested that we taste it before doing so to make sure it was good and my friend took a confident swig: it had gone completely sour.
I’ve never found anything explicitly foul: no dead rats, no bodily fluids, no bottles of piss, not even a used tampon. A discarded mop head soaked in bleach is the most common contaminant.
I have never gotten sick from eating anything I’ve gotten from the trash: everything is carefully inspected and cleaned. At the first sign of spoilage, it goes right back in the trash. If I’m not too tired, the packaging gets recycled: usually, it doesn’t, but it’s still better than what the store was doing.
The brunt of the responsibility for things like recycling and avoiding waste needs to occur at a corporate and government level. A model of environmentalism that focuses entirely on individual waste is a world where the only effective change I can make is to take up less space: a world where I’m better off dead.
One of the side effects of dumpstering at gourmet markets was that the majority of the food I got for free (minus the hours of labor spent digging it out of bags, late at night, in the freezing cold, and cleaning it: that doesn’t count as work to anyone once you tell them you didn’t pay money for the food) was significantly fancier than what I would have normally bought. I would often take things I wasn’t even sure I wanted because I saw the high price sticker.
Not all of it is good: a nine dollar jar of “garlic bread spread” produced something so removed from garlic bread it was inedible.
I started to get excited about cooking, and learning how to cook things I’d never made before.
I found, for example, filet mignon steaks. I had never had a good steak in my life: I had been, as a child of parents terrified of foodborne pathogens, raised on overcooked meat. I learned how to wrap the meat in bacon and bake it in a cast-iron pan after searing, so that it stayed, at least, medium-rare, and top it with a raspberry balsamic glaze.
I found the cast iron pan, too; a big 15-inch one, in the street on the way home from work, and re-seasoned it. I had to give it up, later, because I was moving to an apartment that was too small for the skillet.
Not everything worked out: I once roasted a whole chicken, took some lovely photos of it with lemons on top, posted them online, and took a bite: the meat had gone sour before I cooked it. The whole bird went in the trash. The photos stayed up. I’ve been wary of whole chickens since.
I used the tapioca starch and some fresh Parmesan (technically not Parm but the similar BellaVitano Gold) to make pão de queijo, or Brazilian cheese bread, which is like a really cheesy, crispy exterior, soft interior, oily roll. I used the syrup from a jar of Amarena cherries to flavor a batch of meringues. I made my own nut milk from soaked and blended walnuts. I made preserved lemons and used them, and dried apricots, in a chicken tagine.
I wanted to make saag paneer but had no paneer, so I pressed a basket of ricotta under 10 lbs of dumbbell weights, flipping and salting it daily for several weeks, until it became ricotta salata, and used that as a substitute.
After dumpstering a large amount of milk, I decided to make my own yogurt for the first time, using an electric blanket to keep the inoculated milk warm. A pot of milk, after being correctly heated, easily turns into yogurt. I strained it to turn it into Greek yogurt and labneh, producing a few cups of whey.
I fermented the whey into blaand, an old-fashioned Scottish milk-based alcoholic beverage that is commonly believed to have been brought there by Vikings. I used whey and honey, fermented with champagne yeast, in a modified soup container.
It took three months to ferment, and the result was about a pint of something that smelled like figs and honey, like mead, but tasted sour: not sour like bad milk, but sour like a lemon. Like an odd cider. I thought it would have been nice mulled.
I haven’t been dumpster diving since the start of the pandemic, but I still have a lot of stuff from then:
Nuts and dried fruits, spices and condiments, mostly. I’ve been planning on going out again, at some point, but haven’t figured out exactly how to do that safely, or whether the procedures for putting out garbage have changed.
What I miss most about dumpster diving, in the meantime, is not even the money I save on groceries, but the constant exposure to new foods: the things I wouldn’t have thought of buying, or the things I would have thought too expensive to try. And the time I spent with my friend, too, that I now spend alone.
One of the most important things about good food, after all, is being able to share it.